The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recently commissioned a study that concluded that there will be a physician shortage of up to 90,000 physicians by 2025. The cost of training that many physicians in a decade would place a huge burden on our already financially strained healthcare system.
But what if the problem extends beyond a physician shortage to encompass limitations in technology and business processes that impair the ability of physicians to deliver all of the care they are capable of delivering. An MGMA study found that, on average, physician practices in the United States lose 12 percent of their daily capacity to no-shows and last-minute cancellations. That’s more than 500 million lost patient encounters each year. Just by reclaiming that lost capacity, we can add the equivalent of up to 50,000 providers to the healthcare system.
Some practices experience no-show rates as high as 50 percent. Clearly, physician under-capacity is an issue that needs serious attention.
The Heart of the ProblemFor years, many practices have toyed with piecemeal solutions to address the problem. One example is the loyalty program, where patients who keep five appointments in a row receive the sixth one at a discount. Another is implementing staff-based phone reminders the day before an appointment. These approaches have been reasonably successful, but they are time-consuming, adding to administrative costs.
At the heart of this problem is aligning consumer demand for appointments with provider availability—a difficult prospect in a world where patients’ primary scheduling approach is to call physician offices. Consumers do not know when providers typically have availability (i.e., Friday afternoons and the month of January), and they tend to call when practices are most full (Monday mornings, for instance). As a result, appointments tend to be scheduled at non-ideal times or with long lead times, which leads to increased cancellation rates and no-shows reduced patient satisfaction and retention. In addition, current methods make it difficult to understand when consumers want to schedule and what provider services they require/desire. Understanding consumer demand is critical to better aligning provider availability and service offerings.
The Impacts of Online SchedulingMany practices are turning to cloud-based scheduling and customer relationship management (CRM) technology to fill existing calendar gaps while identifying and eliminating new ones. Digital strategies can help even a “full-panel” provider accommodate three or more new patients per month by improving show rates. These strategies offer many advantages.
Getting patients in sooner. Online scheduling enables patients to get available appointments more conveniently and eliminates missed opportunities, voice mails, and call-backs. Today, 20 percent of patients are able to receive same-day or next day appointments and 50 percent confirm appointments within a one-week window. Some provider groups use online solutions to offer a special same-day/next-day option for certain appointment types.
Scheduling during off-hours. A high percentage of patients (often more than half) will find it most convenient to schedule outside of normal front-office working hours—including before work, at lunch, and in the evening.
Helping patients to be better informed. Online scheduling helps prepare patients to arrive fully informed on issues such as procedure guidelines and the insurance that is accepted by the practice.
Highlighting areas for opportunity. By identifying times of day (such as late afternoon) where show rates go down, online scheduling allows for double-booking in an automated, data-driven way that makes sense for practices and for patients.
Using resources efficiently. Business rules regarding scheduling—defined by the practice and implemented by a data specialist—can ensure discharge follow-ups fall on the same morning each week and that two new patients are not scheduled in a row. Providers’ schedules can be improved based on a better understanding of demand and the specific needs of patients.
Meeting consumers online, where they want to interact with their healthcare providers, changes the game. In fact, based on observed results for a number of healthcare providers, patient completion rates can improve for certain patient populations by more than five times through online scheduling and automated reminder messages sent by text, voice, or email. It stands to reason that the likelihood of patients showing up for appointments increases when patients can choose for themselves the time most convenient for them to attend, and can do so by selecting from a visible menu of appointment slots available for their particular need. Moreover, patients who cancel or reschedule via reminder text can be quickly replaced by others seeking appointments using an automated wait list. Patients are contacted by text or email with a link to confirm an earlier, open appointment slot.
Online scheduling cannot address every missed patient opportunity, but it can substantially improve provider calendars and better engage patients. By giving patients greater control and choice in making their appointments, online scheduling not only increases the likelihood that they will show up for their appointments but also offers them an increased level of convenience that is likely to raise their satisfaction with the provider. Online scheduling also provides a means to ensure access, scheduling, and appropriate messaging occur at the right times, thereby making better use of health care’s most valuable resource: our providers’ time.
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