Oct 07 2021

Ease and Access: Why the Patient Scheduling Experience Needs an Upgrade

Healthcare providers can take these much-needed steps to center patients in the appointment scheduling process.

Patients continue to look for convenient and flexible access to healthcare, and for many, that means seeking self-service options. In a lot of ways, healthcare’s approach is influenced by the digital experiences within other industries, including hospitality and travel.

For example, self-scheduling cuts through common barriers to access, such as hours of operation and long hold times. By empowering patients to schedule their own services, physicians create engagement, which has been shown to prevent gaps in care.

The digital patient engagement experience evolved significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through chatbots and asynchronous symptom checkers that hospitals could deploy with the help of cloud-based platforms such as ServiceNow, the care experience could start immediately online. Patient self-scheduling has been especially powerful during the vaccination process.

When COVID-19 vaccines first became available in the U.S. in late 2020, health systems were at risk of being overwhelmed by the need to vaccinate thousands of people quickly and efficiently. Automated self-scheduling processes lifted the burden from healthcare workers and empowered patients to select appointments for themselves, which in turn allowed healthcare staff to focus on other priorities.

Beyond the pandemic, about 80 percent of patients prefer a physician who offers online scheduling, according to a study from Healthgrades and Stax. Additionally, a 2019 Accenture survey found that 70 percent of patients say they would choose providers who send emails or text messages when it’s time for preventive or follow-up care.

Healthcare systems need to assess their scheduling options to prevent long wait times and poor patient experiences, as this can affect their ability to attract new patients and retain current ones. Investing in better digital solutions such as scheduling options will benefit both patients and staff members.

Although making scheduling easier and more accessible to patients will help fill the calendar, appointment cancellations and no-shows can create vacancies on the back end of the scheduling process. Patients cancel or no-show for medical appointments for a number of reasons, but good patient engagement strategies can help providers get ahead of these and keep the schedule full. 

READ MORE: Behind the mass vaccination effort: how providers adapted quickly.

Here are the top four reasons patients cancel medical appointments and what providers can do to address those issues:

1. Pre-Appointment Anxiety Due to Fear of the Unknown

For many, fear and dread of a doctor’s visit can result in avoiding, delaying or canceling appointments. Patients report fear over bad news, being reprimanded for putting off treatment and uncertainty over their financial responsibility. Patients may also put off a visit to avoid getting bloodwork done or undergoing certain exams and procedures. Anxiety over exposure to COVID-19 also spiked during the past year, resulting in more patients putting off care or canceling appointments.

According to research published in 2020 from VMware and MIT Technology Review Insights, 51 percent of healthcare organizations are increasing their investments in the patient experience, such as strengthening virtual care services.

Helping patients understand what to expect during their appointments can ease the fear of the unknown, and offering virtual care services, such as video visits and remote patient monitoring, continues to be a good option for patients during a global health crisis.

Source: Accenture, 2020 Digital Health Consumer Survey, August 2020

2. Concern Over High Financial Costs

Out-of-pocket costs and employer deductibles are higher than ever. According to a Gallup poll, as many as one-third of Americans say they don’t get the medical care they need because of the cost. In fact, 22 percent of people surveyed put off treatment for a serious condition because of the expense.

Helping patients understand their financial responsibility and educating them about payment plans and their financial options can help reduce cancellations. Using automated digital registration and intake software can help medical office staff collect payer information earlier in the patient journey and fuel better conversations about financial means and responsibilities before appointments.

3. Lack of Scheduling Convenience

Studies show that people in the U.S. not only work more hours per week than people in any other developed country, but they are also working more than ever. Hectic work schedules, family lifestyles and personal obligations often make it difficult for some to prioritize their health. When the repercussions of taking time out of the workday to go to the doctor feel more serious than the health problem itself, it’s easy for patients to prioritize meetings and tasks over the doctor’s appointment they scheduled, especially if they aren’t acutely ill.

Flexible scheduling options and virtual care availability can both play a role in helping patients prioritize their health, even in the midst of their busy schedules. Updated integrations within an electronic health records system with videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Cisco Webex or Microsoft Teams can enable a seamless and secure digital encounter for patients.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Digital, omnichannel platforms modernize patient access.

4. Lack of Appointment Availability

Growing waitlists and wait times can greatly affect cancellation rates. Sick patients, frustrated by having to wait a long time for an appointment, are more likely to cancel and seek care at an urgent care or retail clinic.

Holding a small percentage of appointments for same-day visits and offering virtual care to patients who can be seen remotely make it easier for patients to stay loyal to their established providers and reduce the likelihood that they’ll seek fragmented, episodic care elsewhere. Automated waitlist software can also help medical offices fill canceled appointments with patients who may be hoping to get an earlier visit. For specialties that often schedule patients several weeks or even months out, this can help fuel better patient retention and schedule optimization.

Anticipating the barriers patients face and working with them can help providers create a system that works for patients and drives better financial, operational and clinical outcomes. When appointment scheduling is centered around patient access and convenience, healthcare providers and staff reap the benefits of an effective process too.

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