Patient engagement best practices to avoid the January appointment slump

As insurance deductibles reset, the first quarter is often a slow time of year for medical practices.

In January, many patients make the choice to delay care until later in the year. The rise in the COVID-19 Omicron variant could also exacerbate the lull in appointments. Fortunately, there are practical, actionable steps that healthcare organizations can take now to schedule more appointments at the beginning of the year.

Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with Kristin Roberts, vice president of market development at Phreesia, about the role that technology and effective patient engagement can play in boosting appointment volume.

Question: Healthcare leaders are starting to plan for the year ahead. Why is it important to encourage patients to come in sooner, rather than later?

Kristin Roberts: If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it's that we can't be sure of what's ahead. Beyond COVID-19, unexpected changes in weather, transportation and competition are just a few factors that could disrupt a medical practice's typical volume.

That's why practices must hit the ground running at the beginning of the year, reaching out via email or text to encourage patients to get in early for routine care and to book appointments they may have been putting off. Including a link in a message that enables self-scheduling or online appointment requests makes it easy for patients to follow through.

Q: How can providers most efficiently fill empty slots in their schedule?

KR: Some offices may choose to maintain a waitlist. However, having to manually reach out to patients about newly available appointments is a huge burden on staff who are already strained. Automated schedule management allows providers to fill gaps in their schedule without using staff time. When a patient cancels an appointment, an automated schedule management tool automatically identifies clinically relevant patients with upcoming appointments and sends those patients a text message offering them the opportunity to claim the earlier, reopened appointment slot. The first patient to reply gets the appointment, without the need for waitlist sign-ups, apps, portals or staff work.

Q: Why is it important to have consistent patient flow?

KR: When scheduling is consistent, a lot of other blocks fall into place downstream. Revenue is more predictable, which means leaders can more confidently make business decisions about resources and staffing. Obviously, a full provider schedule is good for revenue, but it also means greater predictability for clinicians who can better plan their work week, without wondering whether gaps will be filled at the last minute. Automated schedule management can not only fill gaps from cancellations, but also ensure schedules are balanced across clinicians by automatically filling the schedules of providers who have more capacity. This keeps physicians productive and ensures patients get the care they need in a timely manner.

Q: Referrals are an important tool for primary care and specialty practices alike. What can healthcare providers do today to streamline referrals in the year ahead?

KR: Right now, practices send referrals a lot of different ways and they're mostly archaic. According to a survey of 174 healthcare providers and administrators conducted by Phreesia in November and December 2020, more than half of providers send referrals via fax. While it's easy to send and receive faxes, it's hard to keep track of referrals this way. National surveys find that as many as half of all specialty referrals are not completed.

In contrast, practices that have a single, digital destination for referrals are able to keep track of them regardless of how they are received. A direct, two-way line of communication between primary care physicians and specialists is also important to ensure that referrals don't fall through the cracks.

Q: What advice do you have for healthcare organizations looking to improve their patient experience in the year ahead?

KR: I can't stress enough how important it is to enable patients to schedule appointments and complete registrations online. Whether you are a solo practice or part of a major health system, patients now expect a digital experience that allows them to conveniently manage their healthcare needs. We've become accustomed to a digital-first experience in nearly every other aspect of our lives and that expectation is finally becoming the standard in healthcare. Digital intake isn't just a benefit for patients; when staff aren't transcribing forms or manually verifying insurance, they're able to focus on more complex tasks and spend more time connecting with patients on a personal level.

Learn how Phreesia can help your organization book more appointments, enhance the patient experience and streamline the referrals process.

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