Virtual intake management: Cultivating loyalty with convenience

Virtual intake management: Cultivating loyalty with convenience


  • The COVID-19 crisis has pushed many healthcare providers to upgrade their telehealth and virtual patient engagement offerings. Patients will not want to give these options up when the pandemic has ended.
  • Even if they are satisfied with the quality of care from their current provider, patients are very likely to switch to a different provider organization if it offers a more convenient experience. Providers who don’t use tools that make things convenient for patients are likely to lose patients.
  • Patient portals and telehealth options are becoming the bare minimum for a digital healthcare experience. Providers can differentiate themselves by adopting virtual intake management tools. 
  • The effective use of virtual intake management tools creates a convenient experience that will increase both satisfaction and loyalty. 

I’m writing this piece while in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions. My life, like yours, looks a little different today than it did several months ago. For starters, I’m not making any trips to Target. Instead, I use the Target app on my phone. The app knows the items I like based upon my purchase history and what I tend to buy every week; those items come up in a handy list. I choose how many of each item I want, pay with the click of a button, and wait a couple of hours for the merchandise to show up on my doorstep. 

The typical healthcare patient experience is the antithesis of today’s easy and virtual shopping experience that is common for consumers across other industries. Patients face far too many barriers, which range from scheduling appointments to understanding their out-of-pocket obligation with providers. In a recent conversation with a large health system revenue cycle executive, I learned that this person’s organization, like many others, charges patients for cancelling appointments but offers only one way to complete a cancellation or choose an alternate appointment date: via phone call. And this is at one of the largest, most sophisticated physician organizations in the country!

Those of us who work in healthcare talk a big game in terms of patient engagement and offering patient-friendly options. In truth, we’re absurdly behind nearly every other industry. Most of the tools we’ve developed and adopted have actually been developed with sole focus on easing the burden on clinicians rather than patients. Important financial, administrative, and patient-facing elements of these tools tend to be an afterthought. As a result, patients have often been obliged to go to facilities that use cumbersome processes with limited or no self-service opportunities.

The good news for patients? Healthcare providers will begin embracing more sophisticated, patient-friendly processes and tools to improve convenience and ensure a better patient experience.

The COVID-19 Watershed Moment

For many years, patients in the US have been begging for a more convenient healthcare experience as evidenced by the following studies: 

  • The results of a survey by Atanda showed that, after participating in a virtual visit, “98 percent of patients [said] they would be interested in future telemedicine visits, and 99 percent would recommend telemedicine” (Eastwood 2018). 
  • A 2017 InstaMed report found that 92% of consumers want to know payment responsibility prior to a provider visit, and 80% of consumers prefer online payment channels to pay their health plan premiums (Instamed 2017). 
  • According to a 2017 Stax report, “When given a choice between physicians with similar experience, proximity, availability, and patient satisfaction ratings, the vast majority of consumers (81% for PCPs, and 77% for specialists) choose the physician who provides online scheduling” (Healthgrades 2017).

Healthcare leaders know what patients want; they’ve just been slow to respond. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protective measures used to fight it, have forced providers into action. All over the country, provider organizations are evaluating and adjusting how they engage with their patients. 

Facilities with telehealth options and virtual intake management functionality have expanded their use of those tools, and many additional facilities have scrambled to implement them. The increase in demand for telehealth services has been astoundingly steep. Michigan Medicine went from providing 400 virtual visits per month to providing over 9,000 in just the first half of April (Landi 2020). And the CEO of telehealth company Amwell said in March “that this huge hike of 10- or 20-fold growth [in virtual-visit volumes] in a week may become the new norm” (Brodwin 2020).

Of course, plenty of healthcare organizations are still dragging their feet. The reasons for that may include a lack of resources or a lack of urgency; either way, these facilities are currently unable to offer services to as many patients as their faster counterparts and are turning patients away “until things go back to normal.” 

But yesterday’s normal is dead. As a result of the pandemic, patients have gotten a taste—or at least a glimpse—of consumer-friendly healthcare, and most will never again settle for less. Healthcare organizations that have not invested in technology that delivers convenience for patients will probably see patients go elsewhere.

The Great Migration

Too many healthcare leaders assume that patients will come back as long as they receive good care from their provider. In truth, patient satisfaction doesn’t always translate into patient loyalty (PELITAS April 2020). 

If that sounds counterintuitive, take a moment to picture your favorite specialty store. It’s probably a small chain or family-run business on the other side of town or in another city, and you sometimes have to wander around a bit to find what you’re looking for. You may also have to pay a little more than expected. Despite the amazing staff and products there, you probably shop on Amazon much more often. Why? Because Amazon offers an easy search function, fast delivery, price-comparison functionality, and a quick shopping experience that doesn’t require you to leave home. Most of the time, convenience is your top priority, and you might even be willing to pay a premium for said convenience. 

The same principle holds true in healthcare, as illustrated in the following examples: 

  • In one survey by NRC health, 80% of the respondents who said they were satisfied with their care also said that they would consider switching providers based on convenience factors alone (NRC Health). 
  • An Accenture report found that 47% of the patients surveyed would switch providers to understand the costs of services at the time of scheduling appointments (Aquina 2020).
  • In addition, according to another report from Accenture, 61% of consumers would switch providers for the ability to get an appointment quickly when they need it, and 52% would switch for the ability to get an appointment at a convenient location (Collier & Basham 2016). In cases when virtual visits can be used, they provide both of these benefits: quick access to care and the most convenient location of all. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing the public which healthcare organizations cannot or will not provide convenient options. Those providers are very likely to lose patients forever, and it may be a lot of patients. In fact, according to a recent Black Book survey, “90% of patients no longer feel obligated to stay with healthcare providers that don’t deliver an overall satisfactory digital experience” (Black Book Market Research LLC 2018).

We may not know exactly how many patients will leave their current providers or how soon they’ll do it, but we do know where they will go: to the organizations that make things easy with the right digital tools. The same Black Book survey found that “[f]or their next healthcare purchase, 83% of consumers polled will seek providers that offer four fundamental technologies in demand: digital scheduling, online payment options, portal and engagement capabilities, and results reporting tools” (Black Book Market Research LLC 2018). 

The True Differentiator: Virtual Intake Management

Too many healthcare leaders seem to feel that offering virtual visits, a patient portal, and online scheduling and payment options equates to having a strong digital presence. This is not accurate. First of all, many of these tools are woefully underused even when they are offered; that’s a discussion for another article. Secondly, those offerings are quickly becoming the bare minimum. 

In 2018, about 90% of practices already had a patient portal, and many more had plans to implement one (MGMA 2018). In addition, Gartner predicted in 2018 that by 2021, “70 percent of healthcare providers will offer self-scheduling options to patients, no longer making it a standout offering” (Blaszkiewicz 2018). Finally, as discussed earlier, even if virtual visits were considered a rare luxury before COVID-19, they won’t be any longer. 

The harsh reality is that provider organizations that aren’t already using and maximizing these tools are behind, and organizations that want to be ahead need to be offering much more. So what tools are going to differentiate a healthcare facility? Those under the umbrella of virtual intake management. The following are a few key examples: 

  • Online preregistration and forms completion
  • Touchless signatures
  • Two-way, interactive text messaging
  • Virtual check-in
  • Text to pay for services
  • Wayfinding
  • Wait-time tracking
  • Real-time video interaction between clinicians and families

A number of facilities have implemented one or more of these tools specifically to help adjust to the world of COVID-19 (PELITAS March 2020). But pandemic or no pandemic, patients and provider organizations themselves benefit from using virtual intake management tools. A report from KLAS Research found that “[n]early 60% of respondents report that their intake management solution helps their practice be more efficient, focus better on the patient experience, and eliminate some of the overhead associated with processing patient questionnaires and managing patient check-in” (Gleave & McIntosh 2018).

In short, virtual patient intake functionality creates more effective healthcare facilities and upgrades the patient experience from acceptable to exceptional. 

Cultivating Loyalty with Virtual Intake Management

Imagine that a friend or website recommends a healthcare clinic you’ve never visited before and that you decide to give it a try. First, you use your phone to Google the name of the facility and quickly find its website. The first things you notice are the invitation to make a new-patient appointment and a link to the organization’s price-estimator tool.

You decide to make an appointment. Because of the nature of your ailment, you pass on the virtual-visit option listed and schedule an in-person appointment with a few clicks. Next, a list of forms appears with instructions to complete them before your appointment. Because you’re able to directly enter the fields of the forms, you finish them quickly. You’re then prompted to use your phone to scan in your insurance card, and you do so in seconds. The entire preregistration process has taken just a few minutes to complete. 

Two days before your appointment, you get the following text message: “Your appointment with Dr. Brown is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 2nd. If you will be at your appointment, please reply YES. If you need to cancel or reschedule your appointment, please click the following link.” You reply “YES” and get another text with the facility’s address and these instructions: “Upon arrival, please stay in your vehicle and call the following number.” 

After arriving at your appointment, you call the appropriate number. The receptionist answers and tells you, “I have added you to our digital queue. You will receive a text message when we are ready for you. You can check your estimated wait time on our mobile site.”

15 minutes later, you get a text message saying, “We are ready for you. Please see Sue at Desk 1 to complete your registration. For directions to Desk 1, please see the wayfinder at the following link.” The wayfinder directs you through the front doors, around the corner, and down the hall to Desk 1, where the receptionist directs you to the room where you are to meet your doctor. 

You are blown away. In appointments with previous providers, you’ve always had to wait on hold in order to schedule or reschedule an appointment, wonder exactly what process you’ll need to follow when you arrive, and then spend over an hour—the national average is 64 minutes (Freyer 2015)—completing redundant forms and waiting to be seen by the doctor. Is there any question which provider you’ll be visiting again?

Virtual patient intake functionality creates an experience that patients fall in love with. Convenience increases patient satisfaction, and the combination of the two yields patient loyalty. 

Time to Choose

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended countless lives and the delivery of healthcare. Consumers’ need for more patient-friendly options has increased, and patients are going to choose the providers who can offer them. Healthcare facilities will quickly be faced with the choice: adopt the right tools or be left behind. 

It’s time for healthcare stakeholders to reevaluate what they offer to patients in terms of shopping for care, delivering care, and interfacing with providers before, during, and after care. In particular, they can set themselves apart by adopting virtual patient intake functionality that will lighten the load of both patients and staff members. 

Patients are going to get convenience. The question is whether they’re going to get it from you. 

Steven Huddleston is a seasoned revenue cycle executive and the CEO of PELITAS, the 2019 and 2020 Best in KLAS winner for patient access software. With more than 25 years of experience in provider healthcare, he has a proven record in leading organizations through periods of significant change, including: accelerating innovation and growth, integrating mergers and acquisitions, and building high-performing teams. 

Prior to joining PELITAS, Steven helped build the investment thesis and identify the acquisitions to launch nThrive and was subsequently appointed President, Service Solutions & Chief Client Officer. Prior to nThrive, Steven was a Managing Director in Accenture’s Healthcare strategy practice, where he worked with not-for-profit provider organizations and private equity-backed portfolio companies to drive business transformation through operating strategy and model design, technology selection, and post-merger integration change management. 

Steven spent 15 years with Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) in progressive financial and revenue cycle leadership roles. After leading revenue cycle operations at two shared service centers, he helped launch Parallon, a revenue cycle outsourcing subsidiary of HCA.

Since joining PELITAS in November 2018, he has positioned the company as the leader in patient access technology solutions to support hospitals and physicians by recruiting industry-leading talent, launching innovative solutions, and winning the Best in KLAS designation two years in a row.


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