As the flu season collides with COVID-19—and an unexpected surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) strains hospital capacity—healthcare providers need digital tools that give patients simple, easy access to appointment scheduling and self-registration, while helping staff meet increased demand. Digital appointment scheduling software, together with online registration solutions and automated patient outreach, help providers create a better patient experience, achieve greater operational efficiency, and ultimately improve access to care.
24/7 self-scheduling opens the digital front door
A surge in seasonal viruses presents numerous challenges for healthcare providers. The sheer volume of patient calls can be overwhelming for staff. Meanwhile, patients need immediate help, often 24/7. “Patients who are feeling sick, or who have a sick child, are in a vulnerable position,” says Sanju Pratap, Vice President, Product Management at Experian Health. “They need care, but they may also need help figuring out where they should receive that care and how urgent their situation is. Can they wait until the next available appointment, or should they go to the emergency room now?”
With patient scheduling software, providers can configure the online self-scheduling process to include key questions about the patient’s symptoms that help determine what the next steps should be. Patients who need immediate medical treatment receive a recommendation to seek emergency care; patients with less urgent needs can schedule appointments online or may be directed to telemedicine visits or urgent care.
Digital appointment scheduling tools provide patients with the kind of around-the-clock access they enjoy every day. They already use online portals and mobile apps to book flights, make dinner reservations, and even schedule their COVID-19 vaccinations. They expect scheduling healthcare to be equally convenient.
“Patient scheduling software changes the way patients feel about the availability of care. When patients have to wait for the office to open or negotiate with a call-center representative to make an appointment, scheduling feels like a hassle,” Pratap says. “For patients who are accustomed to online scheduling in other areas of their lives, this lack of access could be a reason to look elsewhere for care. Meanwhile, our experience is that providing online self-scheduling can add as many as eight new patients per provider per month. Self-scheduling opens the digital front door.”
Making the waiting room a safer space
As the flu, COVID, and RSV cause the number of patients needing appointments to surge, online self-scheduling can relieve front desk and call center staff by offloading a large volume of calls—both from patients needing immediate care for viral illnesses and from patients needing to cancel unrelated appointments due to illness. From there, digital tools also improve efficiency and make the waiting room a safer space once patients come in for care.
“Patient scheduling software that integrates with patient self-registration and targeted patient outreach can further ease the workload for over-burdened staff,” says Pratap. “After patients schedule online, they receive automated reminders and the opportunity to complete registration forms before they come in for their appointments.”
Recent data from Experian Health and PYMNTS found that a third of patients chose to fill out registration forms for their most recent healthcare visit using digital methods, while 61% of patients said they’d consider changing healthcare providers to one that offers a patient portal.
Pre-appointment registration keeps sick and contagious patients out of the waiting room, which reduces exposure to other patients and staff, and makes everyone more comfortable. Automated patient outreach can send appointment reminders and follow-up emails to patients who miss their appointments and may need to reschedule.
Preparing for a busy season—and beyond
Getting ready for a busy virus season is just one reason providers are adding digital tools to improve the patient experience and lighten the burden on staff. Expanded access to appointments, automated outreach, and online registration gives patients the digital engagement they expect from their healthcare providers.
Digitalization also improves efficiency. Experian’s Patient Scheduling Software can also provide insights into patient demand and capacity and allows providers to better optimize appointment capacity and the patient scheduling experience. Integrated digital tools make scheduling, intake, verification, billing, and collections more efficient while reducing the need for human input.
The result is not only greater capacity for providers, but also greater resilience. The fall and winter virus season may be annual, but it takes on a different magnitude each year. Meanwhile, no one can predict whether a new or recurring virus (think RSV or Monkeypox) will trigger a surge in care needs. Adding digital solutions that can flex with changing patient volume takes some of the strain off staff members who may be stretched thin—and may require care or downtime after catching a seasonal virus themselves.
“The challenge for providers lies in identifying and implementing the digital solutions they need to move their operations to a new level, keeping in mind patients’ needs as digital consumers. Patients expect and demand constant and real-time connections. These solutions can help providers grow and thrive even as they experience continued staffing shortages and pressure to find new operational efficiencies and timely access to care,” Pratap says.