When a patient schedules a routine appointment with a physician, the time horizon is typically weeks from now. There are obvious extenuating circumstances—a high fever or broken bone—but those often send patients to seek care from a provider or facility that doesn’t operate on scheduled appointments. A lot can happen in those weeks—or even months—between the time you gave the patient an appointment and the actual appointment itself. The patient can get better; the patient can contact a competitor and locate an earlier appointment; a conflict can arise for the patient; or the patient can determine that the issue is sufficiently acute to require immediate care, thus moving to the non-scheduled option like the emergency department. Further, your practice can have issues like the physician being absent that day.
Life happens, and the more time between the scheduling transaction and the appointment, the more churn that will occur. In fact, according to the Patient Access Collaborative, only 64 percent of scheduled appointments end with a patient’s arrival. That’s a lot of opportunity!
Despite all the churn, you’ve got to have as many planes land as possible in the slots you’ve assigned them to. Awareness is critical to managing the runway. Deployment of tactics to proactively manage the churn can be effective:
- Aim to foster a culture of accommodation. If patients are routinely given appointments in days, not months, you’ll be more likely to help them—and they’ll be less likely to move to a competitor. Encourage your scheduling team to look for appointment today or tomorrow; often, these slots go unfilled simply because we’re all used to looking further out.
- Work with the patient on the appointment. “Ms. Jones, is there a convenient day of the week and time of day for your schedule?” This question leads to better engagement than stating the next appointment available, and asking the patient if he or she wants it. The patient, thinking that’s the only option, takes the appointment, only to find out later that there’s a conflict.
- Establish a strict policy about internal schedules. if you routinely schedule three months out, then your physicians must have their calendars set four months in advance. Don’t deviate from this policy unless there is an emergency.
The inevitable shifting of the planes on the runway offers opportunity. Consider four key factors for patient communication during this critical time:
- Method. Although reminders have historically been sent by telephone, that device is rapidly changing as a means of communication. Many practices have moved to an opt-out only, text-based communication platform, although it’s certainly ideal to put the choice of the method in your patients’ hands. Ask for their preference, and comply with it.
- Timing. Aim your reminders for a time that allows your practice to best manage the runway. If a patient schedules 12 months in advance, transmit a confirmation 30 days’ out. If a patient schedules three months in advance, time the messaging for 10 to 14 days out. Unless you’re routinely scheduling same-day/next-day appointments, consider five to seven days in advance of the appointment as an ideal window to confirm, as that timing still allows you the chance of converting an open slot to one that is filled. At one hour to two days’ out, the goal is to encourage the patient to arrive. Both are great objectives, but should be managed distinctly.
- Preferences. Patient preference varies regarding the ideal frequency of appointment communication, but many practices have settled on three points of communication. Of course, this depends on the method and timing. If, for example, the patient schedules an appointment tomorrow, you’ll just annoy them if you robocall them three times between now and then. Select your frequency in conjunction with method and timing.
- Links. This decision is an important one, as you want to convey the information about the appointment in a condensed format that protects the patients’ privacy. It’s ideal if you can link the confirmation to download to your patients’ calendar (e.g., Outlook), as well as your address such that the patient can seamlessly integrate it with their GPS system. Further, bi-directional communication allows the patient to alert you of a cancellation, thus enabling you to quickly identify an open slot – and proactively work to move another plane into it.
Perishable time is challenging to manage, but keeping focus on runway management through your patient communication platform can allow you the chance to optimize your best asset, and certainly that of your patients’—your physicians’ time.