Losing customers is one of the greatest risks to any business. Within healthcare, however, the stakes can be far greater. Patient attrition is often the result of an inadequate patient experience, and has the potential to lead to interruptions in care.
While a private practice often needs a steady flow of new patients, medium- and long-term practice growth relies deeply on patient satisfaction and loyalty. Keeping patients — and encouraging the right return visits — is vital for both patient health and the pulse of the practice.
Various online sources talk about a standard patient attrition rate falling somewhere between 10 percent and 30 percent. That’s an awfully wide range that doesn’t lend much insight to a private practice’s need to retain patients in a competitive market.
To get a closer look at patient attrition, we asked patients about leaving healthcare providers, as part of the 3rd annual patient perspective survey report. The results indicate patients’ likelihood to consider their healthcare options just as they might look at their choices within any purchasing situation: if they can find something better, they’ll leave to get it.
The current risk of patient attrition
In the 2021 survey, more than one-third of patients — 36.4 percent — said they have left a healthcare provider within the past two years (the survey was conducted in May 2021).
Of course, some of those people left due to circumstances they couldn’t necessarily control, such as a change in insurance coverage or a practice that closed. But the large majority told us they cut off their relationship with a provider or practice because they were dissatisfied.
Eight out of ten patients said they left their healthcare provider due to a poor experience. They were either displeased with an office visit or contact with staff, encountered a lack of access and convenience, or both.
Most common reasons for patient attrition
In our recent blog post, “Why patients switch doctors,” you’ll find a short list of patients’ most frequent complaints when they choose to seek care elsewhere.
To delve deeper into reasons for patient attrition, here’s a look at the survey responses in greater detail:
As the responses show, patients value the connections they make at a practice, not only with their physicians and healthcare providers, but also with practice staff.
Nearly half of respondents said their experience with a provider was the reason for their departure. This aligns closely with another insight from our survey, in which two-thirds of patients listed “a good listener” as what they want most from a healthcare provider, with 47 percent saying they would switch doctors to get it.
Next on the list indicates a breakdown in patient communication: nearly one-quarter of patients said the practice did not address questions or concerns in a timely manner — if at all. Considering patient expectation and preference for contact in between appointments, and the ease with which technology can improve the process (see: two-way text messaging, patient portal access), this is wholly unavoidable.
Then, the #4 and #6 reasons for attrition relate to areas of patient access: the availability of appointments, and the time it takes to see the doctor or provider.
Both topics were addressed in the 2020 edition of the patient perspective survey, giving providers and practices extra insight into what patients expect when booking and seeing a provider:
- 72 percent of patients will not wait more than two weeks to get an appointment with a new doctor.
- Nearly six in 10 patients (59 percent) feel they’re having a poor experience after waiting 20 minutes to see their healthcare provider.
Ways to minimize patient attrition at practices
As part of our annual research, we also ask patients if they would switch healthcare providers for one that offered aspects of the patient experience they find most important. Seventy-two percent said they would.
How can you better ensure patient satisfaction and prevent patients from leaving? First, it’s worth acknowledging that every practice encounters unhappy patients who won’t budge, may be repeated no-shows, or wish to make things difficult. Aside from that usually small group, most patients will respond positively to personal connection, improved communication, and any effort a practice makes to address issues.
Here are some quick tips to consider to keep patients from leaving your practice for another in your area. For more, check out our blog post on how to avoid losing patients.
Prioritize the personal exchange between healthcare provider and patient. A caring physician or dentist who is seen as “a good listener” will drive patient loyalty like no other aspect of the practice.
Empower your front desk to succeed, so they can have valued interactions with patients. This can come in the form of a basic welcome script for arriving patients, technology tools to cut out administrative tasks, and checking in with staff regularly to hear any issues or ideas.
Use technology to give patients greater accessibility to your practice. For appointments, offer patients the ability to book or request an appointment online. Utilize telehealth (if applicable) to add short visits or expand your house, for more flexibility. Give patients options when contacting your practice, especially directly from your website: in addition to online scheduling, offer text messaging and a click-to-call phone number, especially important for people on mobile devices.
Put registration and intake forms online, so patients can complete them on their time, ahead of their appointment. Not only can this save waiting room time, but 62 percent of patients say they prefer it over paper forms.
Ask for, and respond to, patient feedback. As some practices know, this is an imperative to build up online reputation. But it’s also a way to offer an ear to patients who may have concerns — and keep them at your practice by responding. In the patient perspective survey report, only 2.8 percent of patients expressed satisfaction in situations when they did not receive a response to critical feedback. Of those who did receive an answer or response from the practice, 81 percent expressed satisfaction.
A practice growth goal: Keep patients coming back
Thinking of patient acquisition as the key means to practice growth is short-sighted. If a practice’s retention rate, and return visit strategies, fall short, they’ll have to take on a lot more work to continue ensuring an ongoing influx of new patients.
The practices that value patient retention as part of the big picture, and take steps to minimize attrition, are best positioned to realize each patient’s lifetime value (LTV), in which patients and practices both benefit from positive, communicative long-term relationships.
Patient survey: Tracking patient behavior, preferences, and habits in healthcare in 2021
4 reasons patients may be slipping through the cracks at your healthcare practice