Every March, 68 Division I college basketball teams compete in the annual NCAA March Madness tournament — and urologists prepare for a spike in vasectomy appointments. Over the past few years, Vas Madness has gone from whispered urban legend to a now-accepted predictable surge in patient visits, allowing urologists to better prepare their practices for the influx.
And although it’s hard to pin down predictable visit surge numbers for other specialties throughout the year — pediatricians, for example, are busiest in August just before school starts, and allergists tend to be busiest in the early spring — being able to effortlessly handle an unanticipated patient load is easier than one might think.
Let’s look at four tips for how healthcare practices of any size can manage patient surges and reign in appointment madness.
Online scheduling, which allows patients to request or book office visits online in a similar fashion to booking restaurant reservations via OpenTable, is quickly becoming the preferred method of making appointments for patients. Our research shows 42% of patients prefer to use online scheduling than the telephone. When practices have enabled online scheduling, nearly 63% of appointments booked come from new patients.
Aside from being what patients prefer and driving new business, online scheduling helps manage a surge in patient visits in a variety of ways.
First, online scheduling works even when your practice is closed, allowing patients to schedule visits after hours. Second, it leads to last-minute open slots getting filled. More than 25% of patients will schedule an appointment for the same day or the next, according to our research. Finally, when patients book appointments online, it means office staff are freed up from the phone so they spend more time providing high-value customer service to patients in the office.
Healthcare providers didn’t do advanced training so they could spend some 2.5 hours per day of clerical and administrative work. Nearly every staff member at a practice will be faced with completing routine tasks that could be automated. And by doing so, practices can empower frontline employees to be more efficient and take on more satisfying work.
So, what sort of routine office tasks can be automated? For starters, every practice should evaluate the ones unique to them, and then identify the right services to do so. However, our research has found these four tasks as a starting point: appointment reminders, scheduling appointments (see above), sending patient satisfaction surveys, and managing online reputation.
For instance, instead of calling to remind each individual patient of their scheduled visit, automated appointment reminders are sent via text message or email. The added benefit is text messages are a proven method for reducing no-shows.
When the intake process isn’t well managed, it becomes severely magnified across a high-volume of patient visits. Patients receive poor service, experience long wait times, and often leave unhappy regardless of the care they are given. The trickle down of this poor experience leads to negative online reviews and a diminished reputation.
One way to streamline this process is to offer digital check-in and the ability to fill out any forms online ahead of any scheduled appointments. This allows patients to provide accurate information, including demographics, insurance and credit card numbers without filling out several paper forms on a clipboard — information that will later have to be typed into the system by practice staff. Patients, after all, are rarely in the right mindset to answer questions when they are sitting in the waiting room.
Automating the intake and appointment follow-up process, including patient satisfaction surveys, allows practices to spend more time making patients feel comfortable and provides more time for doctors to give patients the care they need throughout the day.
Group appointments are not necessarily a new strategy, but they are an underutilized one by healthcare professionals. Shared medical appointments, where patients with similar conditions are treated in a group setting by one physician, can provide effective care for routine chronic conditions such as diabetes and hold patients more accountable to a care plan via the group setting, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
By treating numerous patients with similar conditions at once, practices can alleviate wait times and treat more patients over the course of a day. During predictable patient surge volume, this could potentially lead to higher patient satisfaction thanks to better quality outcomes and more timely visits.
Even if you’re not a urologist giddily counting down the days until March, every practice will experience a timely jolt of patient appointments at some point. It doesn’t have to be a cause for concern if your practice has taken the necessary steps in anticipation of that moment. Rather, it should be a cause for celebration, just like an underdog upset.
For more tips on how to manage patient surges and better run your practice, check out “How Healthcare Providers Can Modernize the Patient Experience.”
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