'No-shows' draining resources

 

A new study has found there is a high rate of non-attendance by patients at hospital appointments

PATIENTS WHO do not attend their hospital appointments are a serious drain on time and resources, according to studies conducted by the medical profession.

Figures produced for two of Dublin’s biggest hospitals show that almost 25,000 did not at- tend appointments at St James’s Hospital last year and and the figure for St Vincent’s Hospital was almost 27,000.

A report in Britain estimates that those who do not attend (known as DNAs), cost the NHS almost ¤1 billion a year. No equivalent figures are available here, but the most comprehen- sive study carried out in the Republic to date, by Beaumont Hospital’s dermatology department, has indicated the extent of the problem.

More than one-third (36.5 per cent) of all patients did not attend their appointments in January and February last year, according to research carried out by consultant dermatologist Dr Gillian Murphy and by student doctors Hafsah Sazli and Sheena Gendeh.

An examination of other de- partments in the hospital indicate that the DNA rate at the dermatology department was not exceptionally high. “My students looked to see if it was disease specific and it wasn’t,” said Dr Murphy.

According to the research, 26 per cent gave not receiving their appointments as the most com- mon reason why they did not at- tend. A further 22 per cent for- got their appointments, 17 per cent gave medical reasons such as a cold or diarrhoea and 12 per cent claimed they had cancelled but their names had not been taken off the list.

Other factors were wrong addresses, patient cancellations, a mistaken appointment date and work commitments. Emergencies such as a family bereavement, a broken down car or a cancelled babysitter accounted for only about 3 per cent of DNAs.

Appointments are more frequently broken by the elderly, mostly above 80 years of age, and patients with a record of previously broken appoint- ments are more inclined to be serial absentees.
The difference in DNAs be- tween those who do not turn up for appointments at the urgent clinic on Tuesdays (36.9 per cent) and those who turn up for the non-urgent clinics on Friday (36 per cent) was negligible.

Dr Murphy said DNAs were not only a waste of hospital time, but also increased the burden on GPs whose workload was automatically doubled if they had to re-refer a patient for a hospital appointment.

Beaumont Hospital estimates that there are an average of 13-16 DNAs at the dermatology department alone on every day the clinic opens. It takes one-two hours a day to deal with the non- attendee administration.

“For all the additional work that is done in processing that information about those people, you could actually employ another secretary,” Dr Murphy said.

Luckily, modern technology offers two obvious and very cost- efficient solutions. Text messaging has been used with some success in the UK and e-mail could also be used as a back up.

Trials of a system called Man- aged Appointment Reminder Service (MARS) sends out a text message reminder to all patients’ nominated mobile phone at an agreed date ahead of the appointment. It has proved to be extremely successful in bring- ing down rates of DNAs.
Not only is it beneficial to the patient, but it also cuts down enormously on administration costs if a reply service can be updated automatically. Getting through to the relevant department can be a major problem for patients wishing to cancel.

The fundamental problem with text message, however, is that elderly people, who are more likely to miss appointments, tend not to use it.

However, Beaumont is examining if it would be possible for an elderly person to give the mobile phone number of a relative who then calls to remind that person of their appointment. Not only does it ensure that more appointments are kept, it facilitates cancellation of ap- pointments by people who cannot keep their appointment. This in turn allows those appointments to be reallocated to others awaiting appointments.

Dr Murphy said more research needed to be done to ascertain why less than half of all patients receive their appointments in the first place, a figure which the hospital has found to be very puzzling.

However, she also said that patients must take responsibility for their own treatment and especially the nearly third of all patients who forget about their appointments or claim that they have cancelled but there is no record of such a cancellation.

“If people were more careful about their appointments, took them more seriously and were given a timely reminder closer to the date, the situation would improve.”