Patient self-scheduling as a competitive advantage – interview with the expert

Published: September 21, 2021 by Experian Health

The rising popularity of virtual care seems to be extending itself into other areas of patient experience, including a re-energized consumer preference for digital self-scheduling. In fact, McKinsey & Company reports that telehealth visits and utilization are 38x higher than pre-COVID-19 levels (July 2021). Meanwhile, Experian Health’s State of Patient Access 2.0 survey, released in June 2021, found that 73% of consumers now want to schedule their own doctor appointments online.

Interest in self-scheduling is more than a lingering side effect of the pandemic. For providers, it’s a great way to build digital engagement with current and prospective patients – while accelerating internal efficiencies as patient volume increases.

A clear preference for patient self-scheduling emerges

“The preference for self-scheduling is not surprising when you look at the data,” says Sanju Pratap, Experian Health’s Vice President of Consumer Products, who sat down to talk about leveraging patient scheduling solutions to enhance digital engagement. “Patients are scheduling appointments online at all times of day – right before dinner, early in the morning or at lunchtime. During these uncertain times, self-scheduling is so much easier and safer.”

Expectations also changed when COVID-19 introduced consumers to self-scheduling for vaccine appointments. “At the same time, providers are cognizant of wanting to reduce patient waiting time when trying to schedule appointments or follow-ups – especially in care settings where they’re trying to minimize the time patients are in the office,” says Pratap. “Their resources are pretty slim these days. Any move toward efficiency is appreciated.”

Self-scheduling creates a better digital patient experience—and a competitive advantage

Now, providers are contending with a large number of consumers who moved during and after the pandemic and increased patient volume following a year or more of deferred care. Self-scheduling is often the first point of interaction. “I may Google a new provider to learn more about their practice,” says Pratap. “If I’m on their website and I see a “schedule now” button, I’m likely to try it, rather than waiting weeks or months to call the office to see whether they take my insurance or have an appointment for me.”

That first point of contact can turn into a competitive advantage: “Does the orthopedic practice down the street offer online scheduling that makes it easy for other providers to refer to them—and easy for patients to schedule their own appointments? Providers that do are going to get new patient revenue and increase patient loyalty. They’re going to keep more of their existing patients if they meet consumers where they want to be.”

Providers can create processes that exceed their own expectations

Many providers still have their doubts about self-scheduling. “We often hear, ‘No system is going to understand the nuances of my scheduling template,’” says Pratap. These doubts aren’t totally unfounded. “Accurate appointments require a deep understanding of scheduling protocols. In the past, individually scripted schedulers had binders of questionnaires that they made notes on, relied on Post-It notes, and/or institutional knowledge. As you can imagine, this can be very inefficient, error-prone, and not the best experience for patients, providers or staff.”

If humans have a hard time managing online healthcare appointment scheduling, what hope is there for automated systems? In fact, digital questionnaires and electronic medical records (EMRs) can streamline scheduling and provide a clean, seamless experience for all parties involved.

The key: building a patient self-scheduling system without blind spots

To make scheduling more efficient, questionnaires must be consistent, but also flexible enough to accommodate a variety of providers, locations and specialties. Patients and access coordinators should be able to look for appointments across providers within a single view. If one provider is not available within a patient’s requested timeframe, a system could suggest another qualified provider. In doing so, systems can avoid scheduling imbalances that overload some providers, while under-scheduling others.

Pratap shared additional ideas for avoiding blind spots:

  • Remove friction from the patient journey end to end. For example, if you require a sign-in to your patient portal to view appointments, you may discourage consumers who don’t want to create new sign-ins just to view availability.
  • Create a system that works for many users. “It’s not just patient self-scheduling you have to consider, but also the call center, the patient portal and anyone that’s leveraging an API to book into a provider’s schedule,” says Pratap. “Scheduling tools should make it easy to see availability across multiple providers and locations, and allow patients to see accurate availability and easily book, no matter who you are or how you accessed the system.”
  • Revaluate pre-visit messages sent after appointments are made. Capture all the information you need to ensure the patient’s registration process and visit goes smoothly.
  • Build in accommodations for unique needs. While automation can help streamline scheduling, it’s important to understand every patient’s individual needs. If necessary, staff can step in and take the reins on scheduling. For example, staff can manually accommodate appointments for an older patient who suffers from chronic issues and needs more time with their doctor.
  • Don’t rely solely on out-of-the-box solutions. Using the scheduling functions that come with different types of EMRs may be tempting. However, making the additional effort to create a process that is accurate, efficient and flexible—and encourages digital patient engagement—increases the value of a patient scheduling solution exponentially.

Measure progress and mine data to continue optimizing

Scheduling isn’t just your digital front door. It also has the potential to make—or lose—revenue. “Some providers worry about patients booking the wrong appointments and taking time away from other patients,” says Pratap. “Their concerns are valid; these time slots are valuable.”

“One of the metrics we use to gauge how successful our scheduling systems are is by looking at the rescheduling rate,” Pratap explains. “We look at how many appointments need to be re-booked because the wrong provider or appointment type was chosen and filter out appointments that were re-booked for other reasons. By using this information, we can create systems where re-booking is rare.”

Monitoring data also helps providers stay ahead of fluctuating needs and preferences.  “When you’re choosing a scheduling solution, ask what reporting and analytics are built-in,” says Pratap. “You want to be able to find out, for instance, what availability looks like across your practice—and whether it’s the reason patients aren’t scheduling with you. Analytics and insights can be layered on top of data to help you optimize the patient experience and keep your practice running efficiently.”

Watch Greg Young, Senior Director Marketing, and Sanju Pratap, VP of Product Management for Consumer Products, discuss how you can enhance digital patient engagement and accelerate call center operations with patient scheduling solutions in the latest Interview with the Expert.  

Contact us to see how Experian Health can help streamline patient scheduling for your organization.

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