Some hospitals are abandoning the calendars, spreadsheets, sticky notes and highlighters that are the hallmark of manual scheduling and putting it in the hands of optimizing computer software.

Raleigh, N.C.-based WakeMed Health and Hospital has been managing 70 physicians in three locations in its internal medicine department for about five years using the approach. “We have a lot of variability in our shifts — teaching, nonteaching, night, and evening, and not all doctors do all shifts. The program helps in devising the rules and weighing them by priority, says Doreen Messick, M.D., a hospitalist at WakeMed who handles the scheduling.

More than 20 WakeMed departments are now using this technology, including cardiology, psychiatry, OB-GYN, inpatient pediatrics and urgent care.

The program applies different rules identified by the hospital, such as not scheduling an on-call doctor for such duty on consecutive days, and estimates which schedule is best given the limitations fed into it. It relies on the same approach airlines use to populate seats and that sports leagues use to create playing schedules.

For example, a hospital can feed into the program projected doctor supply and patient demand, the need for more appointments during flu season, even the fact that some doctors are faster than others. The computer program will then use artificial intelligence to determine which schedule or schedules are most optimal and build it. WakeMed had originally used a more basic scheduling program, but the complexity of its internal medicine department caused it to reassess its needs and turn to a more sophisticated system. A smaller practice with a more static template probably can stick with a more basic scheduling program, says Messick.

The approach saves the scheduler time and leads to greater physician satisfaction. “The physician schedule is a huge part of the job. A good schedule makes a happy doctor, which hopefully translates to more camaraderie, physician retention and revenue,” says Messick.

In addition, the program frees up several hours per week for the scheduler, says Suvas Vajracharya, CEO of San Francisco-based Lightning Bolt Solutions, which supplies WakeMed with the technology.

Relying on an automated scheduling program does have some challenges. The more complex a schedule needed, the longer it will take to generate, says Messick. She also needs to change her schedule template often to add shifts and make other modifications.