8 surprising ways to improve patient scheduling with technology

 

How does your staff schedule care?

Effective patient scheduling is one of the most important elements of practice management — resulting in happy patients, increased revenue, and a streamlined medical office schedule.

Make patient scheduling a priority

A study conducted by the University of Utah in 2017 found that 39 percent of patients said one of the most important things in healthcare is the ability to schedule a timely doctor appointment.

However, more than one in three adults with an urgent condition reported that they couldn’t schedule medical appointments when they needed them, a study cited in JAMA found. Researchers said that problems were usually the result of “unplanned, irrational scheduling and resource allocation” not an actual lack of resources.

How to schedule patients effectively

Some effective scheduling techniques include scheduling from noon, prioritizing appointments, and creating a patient wait list. But these all add work to your already overburdened office staff.

Instead, leverage technology to improve patient scheduling without adding to your workload. Here’s how:

1. Confirm appointments with text or email reminders

Automated medical appointment reminders reduce no-shows, increase appointment confirmations, and ultimately increase the number of patient visits through better slot-utilization.

When you select an automated appointment reminder software, be sure to look for one with truly bidirectional functionality — when you’re texting patients, make sure they can text you back. Also, if you’re sending a confirming appointment email, use two-way email so patients can reply.

Riverside Medical Clinic, the largest physician-owned practice in California, implemented WELL’s two-way appointment reminder system. In just one month they saw a 33 percent reduction in no shows along with an increase in appointment confirmations to an impressive 94.5 percent.

2. Automate responses to routine questions

Your staff doesn’t need to respond to every patient message. With an advanced patient reminder system that includes keyword actions, you can send automated responses to both routine patient scheduling phrases such as “confirm,” “cancel,” and “reschedule” as well as the less-than-obvious scheduling phrases, such as “I’ll be there,” “different time,” or “can’t make it.”

3. Improve medical call-center operations

Some patients prefer to speak to a live person rather than to schedule doctor appointments online or via text messaging. Improving the operations of your call center by reducing call volume can dramatically improve patient scheduling.

Santa Monica Orthopaedic Group reduced call volume by 20 percent using WELL, allowing 85 percent of patients to reach a live person when they called to schedule an appointment.

4. Use data to identify trends and opportunities

In an article for Physicians Practice, healthcare consultant Judy Capko advised providers to use data to identify trends and the root cause of scheduling and patient-flow problems.

“This information is critical to digging deeper to evaluate specific incidences and determine what causes the bottlenecks and work-flow problems in your practice,” she said.

Data from patient scheduling software is a good place to start for tracking appointment times, arrival times, time to be seen by a physician, and other key metrics. Additionally, patient communication platforms may include analytics on confirmation and no-show rates and allow you to determine the ideal timing for sending messages.

5. Use broadcast messages to reach a group of patients

When a provider is sick or there is inclement weather, send a broadcast text message to all of the patient appointments you have scheduled for the day. This saves your office staff a couple hours of phone calls and ensures patients arrive at their appointments on time.

Patient Nino Palmiro* was scheduled for a major surgery and received a text message from the hospital alerting him to construction in the area. Because of the alert, he left two hours ahead of time and arrived right on time.

“If I hadn’t received that text, I would have completely missed my surgery,” Palmiro said.

For Palmiro, the text was life saving. For the hospital, it prevented lost revenue. Rescheduling the surgery would have been costly. Every hour of unused operating room time costs roughly $3600 in 2018.

6. Use patient self-scheduling — especially to reschedule appointments

As many as 20 to 30 percent of patients cancel or reschedule their appointments. Calling patients to reschedule creates a lot of administrative work. Instead, implement a patient self-scheduling system that integrates with your patient communication platform. This way, when a patient texts, “I can’t make it!” the software can automatically suggest alternative open times.

7. Use automated patient recalls for scheduling patients in the future

You don’t want to schedule patients a year out from their annual screenings or physical exams. Instead of sending them a self-addressed appointment reminder card in the mail, use recalls sent in the patient’s preferred medium — texting, email, or phone. Ideally, the platform will integrate with your EMR to mark the recall as scheduled to close the loop.

8. Use referral appointments system for patient scheduling

When your specialist offices receive a list of referrals, scheduling patients requires staff to call each patient individually — time consuming to say the least. Instead, use a referrals system that sends all referred patients a message asking them if they would like to schedule an appointment. This way, your staff can save time by following up only with the patients who actually intend to complete the referral. With WELL, the scheduled patients will automatically receive appointment reminders as well, reducing no-shows and keeping your office staff free to do what they do best — care for patients.

WELL leverages technology to improve patient scheduling. It is a fully integrated patient communication platform that enables enterprise health systems, private practices, and vendors to communicate with patients securely across any channel, including text messaging, email, telephone, and live-chat.

*name changed to protect patient identity

Why patients don’t like portals…and what to do about it

 

Some doctors love them. Most patients don’t.

According to Taya Irizarry, a strategy consultant at Highmark Health who has conducted research on portals, “the only reason that patient portals got a kickoff in the beginning was because they were part of HITECH’s meaningful use criteria.” Portals were seen as a way to support patient engagement, which theoretically might lead to better health outcomes.

Theoretically. As yet, Irizarry said, there’s little concrete evidence that patient portal use leads to better outcomes.

“Just because an organization has a portal does not guarantee patient engagement. Just because you build it, it doesn’t mean that they will come,” she explained. “The real crux of people using patient portals is that they have to see them as being valuable.”

The patient perspective

It doesn’t seem like patients see the value. A new, large-scale study found that, even among patients who had health insurance and who had been to see a doctor in the past year, 63% had not used a portal during that time.

Only about 60% of the study’s 2,300 participants were even offered the option, but a significant number of non-users had other reasons for avoiding their portals. Both in terms of patient preferences and physician communication, “we’ve got some real challenges there,” said Denise Anthony, a professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study.

This particular research uncovered three main reasons that patients avoided portal use. Some said that they preferred to speak to their doctor directly. Others cited concerns about privacy and security. Another group felt that accessing the portal was a technological challenge.

While you might expect that last group to be primarily made up of older people, Anthony said that wasn’t the case. No one age, ethnic, or socioeconomic group was particularly likely to cite technological problems as a barrier keeping them away from patient portals.

The problem with portals

People may not actually be that technologically illiterate. The problem may lie with portals themselves.

“They’re big, they’re heavy, they’re full of a bunch of medical jargon, they’re hard to use,” Irizarry said, explaining that patients are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of medical information available in a traditional portal.

According to Irizarry, that has a lot to do with the way that the HITECH act measures patient engagement with the portal. “There’s no measure of how good the patient portal is, no measure for quality, no measure of utilization rate,” she said. “It’s just ‘have people signed onto the patient portal?’”

So what can healthcare organizations—and everyone else—do?

First of all, Anthony said, doctors have to address patient concerns head-on. Providers can assure their patients that portals have excellent security and privacy measures in place, and make clear that “this is not going to impede their relationship with their provider; it’s expected to enhance that.”

Brochures and other educational materials need to tell not just how to use a portal—in step-by-step, jargon-free language—but why. Explaining that a portal can be used for both communication and health management, and helping patients imagine how they personally might use the tool, is a great beginning.

Both Anthony and Irizarry suggested having a staff member available to walk patients through the portal setup. Especially for “an older population who doesn’t have a college education, that might be really useful,” Anthony said.

Increasing the value

But portals themselves need some work. “The original idea was, ‘the more information, the better,’” Irizarry said. “There’s a long sidebar, with ten different links to things. So you click on laboratory results, and it’s every lab result you’ve ever had. There are test results, with numbers that you may or may not understand.”

Patients still want that information, said Pamela Kallmerten, a clinical associate professor at the University of New Hampshire. “They just don’t want the actual provider’s office notes, with medical jargon and that kind of thing,” she said. “They would rather have an office visit summary. They want embedded links, so they can click on a lab result and find out what [a specific term] means. Information in its pure form is not patient-friendly.

In addition, there’s little support when something goes wrong: patients who lose their passwords or have technical difficulties need some assistance. Education can help there, Kallmerten added: in one study she conducted, a patient even suggested offering a community class on portal use and troubleshooting.

That’s also an area where vendors can help: “Vendors could develop some kind of embedded link with a service, where the patient could enter a live chat room,” she suggested.

Even if there’s a lack of evidence to support specific outcomes, Kallmerten said, portals are still an important way to engage patients in their care. “It’s the opportunity to not only share information but to enhance communication with the provider,” she said. “You have more of a conversation, so you can come up with a shared decision.” ♥

See how Cedars-Sinai increased patient enrollment in MyChart by 19% using WELL

Maximize portal enrollment with WELL

Epic is an amazing platform, and WELL can help you realize its full potential. That’s especially true where MyChart is concerned.

Even at the very best of times, portals can be an uphill battle. A recent, large-scale study led by University of Michigan professor Denise Anthony confirms it. The study found that among patients who had health insurance and had visited a doctor in the last year, 63 percent of them had not used a portal during that time.

That’s where WELL can help. Our secure system is designed to integrate with Epic in ways that will increase patient enrollment. And that’s not just theoretical. Cedars-Sinai reported a 19% increase in MyChart portal enrollment using WELL.

Enrolling patients in MyChart:

When a patient schedules an appointment, WELL’s system can request an enrollment code from Epic, then embed it in a link that we’ll send to the patient. When the patient clicks that link, they’ll go straight to your enterprise’s MyChart portal.


This makes portal enrollment nearly effortless. The link auto-populates with the enrollment code and other necessary information; the only thing the patient has to do is enter their personal information for security (usually birthdate and the last four digits of their SSN).

Downloading the MyChart app:

For patients who are already enrolled, scheduling an appointment can trigger a message with a special link to your organization’s MyChart iOS or Android app.

If the patient has already downloaded the app, the link just takes them directly to it, encouraging them to take a look around. If they haven’t, they’ll be taken straight to the app store to download it.

Once a patient is enrolled:

Epic can send MyChart notifications through a third-party messaging vendor. When you use WELL for those notifications, those messages will go out when new information is available, encouraging patients to actually use their portals. They’ll receive notifications of incoming lab results, unread messages from a provider, new billing statements, and much more.♥

If you have any questions about enhancing your MyChart enrollment—or anything else—don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re at (833) 234-9355 or sales@wellhealth.com.

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