Healthcare access in a time of disasters: How online scheduling can be a lifeline for both patients and providers

Schools regularly have mock tornado, earthquake and fire drills in preparation for severe weather. Businesses practice lock-downs and put communication plans in place in case of other threats. But the one thing we don’t prepare for is how to access healthcare in an emergency situation or away from home.

Access in a disaster situation
In 2017 alone, an estimated 6.5 million people evacuated communities in California, Florida, Puerto Rico and Houston – some for days, some for weeks and some even longer. During times of mass evacuation, neighboring communities and border states see an influx of people with varying medical needs, from injuries sustained during evacuation to ongoing issues like diabetes or dialysis.

To help curb the disruption of being forced to evacuate, healthcare providers are looking at new ways to provide access – giving patients a way to use the connectivity options they have on hand to find a doctor quickly. Beyond just accessibility, new solutions are helping those needing on-site medical attention to easily identify available local providers that best match their specific medical needs. This enables patients to continue making informed healthcare decisions despite having no knowledge of area providers.

Access solutions are also becoming especially critical for urgent care providers. By understanding demand for services in real time, urgent care providers can offer a streamlined and more positive patient experience – even with an influx of new, unknown patients. Patients with sudden medical needs can see which location has the most availability, locate an urgent care center nearby and check in online, reducing wait time at the clinic.

But new access solutions don’t just benefit patients; they also give providers visibility into patient behavior. By capturing data and running analytics in real time, providers can quickly align staff to patient needs and adjust staff volumes and workloads. Access solutions such as online appointment scheduling have been shown to reduce no shows by 35 percent, meaning providers can more readily rely on appointments booked to show up, while simultaneously staffing for walk-ins. This not only optimizes available appointment time, but helps providers designate the right resources to meet patient needs, improving the patient experience.

Limited connectivity, full service scheduling.
According to a 2014 Accenture study, it takes as much as eight minutes to schedule an appointment over the phone and at least 30 percent of that time is spent on hold1. In contrast, OAS solutions allow patients to book more quickly, on nearly any digital channel, even during off hours.

This immediate access point allows patients to see all appointment options including available times, insurance plan acceptance, doctor specialties and nearby locations, making booking as easy as possible. Using a digital channel is key, since in emergency or evacuation situations, patients may only have access to a mobile phone. In some cases, they may not have power or the ability to easily recharge devices, making the ability to book an appointment quickly - without wasted hold time eating up battery - vital. Additionally, healthcare providers can send follow up confirmations or questions via text or email, enabling patients to manage every aspect of their appointment simply from their mobile device.

Comfort during crisis.
With an OAS solution, providers can reduce patient stress and alleviate concerns by keeping patients in-the-know. Automated notifications are gaining traction as a way for providers to engage with patients on the channels of their choice, but add even more value in crisis situations. Notifications can be used to confirm appointments, send reminders or to offer up relevant information. For example, a provider could proactively push out notifications to victims of a crisis situation regarding possible health threats from waterborne illnesses, send a reminder about tetanus shots or provide other preventative advice.

In locations on the fringe of disaster areas, provider alerts can be set up to offer information on unexpected closings, re-openings, changes in appointment times or simply to say, “we’re open and accepting patients” – helping patients in crisis mode understand their options and offer peace of mind. Proactive alerts also help hospitals and clinics manage inquiries so they can reduce the possibility of turning people away or conversely, sitting empty.

With the right OAS solution, providers can not only send notifications to patients, they also can give patients the ability to respond and interact directly from their mobile device – cancelling, rescheduling or setting up additional appointments by replying to a notification. This gives providers an immediate window into patient scheduling behavior and how it might impact near-term provider operations. Being proactive with notifications and allowing two-way communication goes a long way in helping patients feel empowered, which can have a lasting and positive impact on perceptions of the provider brand.

Positive Outcomes.
While the popularity of online appointment scheduling has grown in part because of the day-to-day convenience and ease of use, it’s blossoming into a solution that can serve as a lifeline to both patients and providers during crisis situations. Until the day when the exact outcome of natural disasters can be predicted or medical emergencies that happen away from home can be eliminated, patients will always need immediate access to healthcare. With OAS, providers can make the experience as positive as possible, while leveraging technology and data analytics to improve business operations.

About the author
Puneet Maheshwari is the founder and CEO of DocASAP. He was inspired to create an online scheduling solution when he experienced scheduling challenges firsthand while helping family members access care. His goal is to simplify access and enhance patient engagement by intelligently matching patients with optimal care providers across pathways that patients trust and use.

1 https://www.accenture.com/t20170412T080633Z__w__/us-en/_acnmedia/PDF-6/Accenture-Patient-Engagement-Digital-Self-Scheduling-Set-Explode-Healthcare-Over-Next-5-Years.pdf

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