Today’s health care consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to where to seek care. However, the sheer number of options, which include traditional access points as well as urgent care centers, retail clinics, and telemedicine services, actually makes it harder for consumers to access the most appropriate setting for their needs.
The IT you need for your consumer experience strategy
Consumer-friendly embedded scheduling in common provider directories
Many consumers begin their search by consulting online directories to find providers in their ZIP code. From there, they read reviews and check if a provider participates in their insurance. In the past, a patient would choose a provider using the directory and then call the provider’s office or go to the health system’s website to book an appointment. Now, provider search engines, such as Healthgrades and Rally (shown below), can integrate scheduling into their offerings, allowing providers to offer available appointment times and patients to book an appointment without leaving the web page.
Technical and operational challenges to scheduling automation
For health care organizations, self-service scheduling is often an elusive goal that demands cooperation between IT and clinical leaders across the enterprise.
The leading hospital EHR platforms generally provide a solid technical foundation for self-service scheduling within their system, but the process is complicated in the ambulatory world and when running different enterprise EHR and practice management vendors across facilities. Although the out-of-the-box defaults for scheduling in the inpatient and outpatient settings are similar, physicians tend to have greater autonomy in ambulatory settings, which can lead to variation in appointment types and work hour preferences, posing challenges to the success of scheduling-related technological initiatives. Cross-system scheduling is not possible if every physician has a unique approach to scheduling patients. IT leaders must build the appropriate technology infrastructure and work with clinical and practice leaders to standardize scheduling processes in order to achieve scheduling automation.
New options in back-end scheduling automation
From the IT perspective, there is a path to gradually raise the bar on self-service scheduling by incorporating more advanced automation. The goal of this process should be two-way real-time integration. Here, a digital system (within an online booking tool, patient portal, etc.) has full access to the real-time availability of all components of the network. When a patient books a timeslot using the scheduling application, an appointment request is sent—typically using an HL7 v2 message—to the specific provider’s scheduling system which then comes back with a response confirming the appointment.
New integration techniques based on open application programming interfaces (open APIs) can provide further automation of scheduling processes and deliver additional return on investment (ROI). Automated scheduling agent QueueDr uses open APIs to help ambulatory offices and surgical centers maximize their appointment slot utilization. The technology connects to select EHRs and practice management systems. When a patient cancels an appointment, QueueDr analyzes other patients with appointments in the future and predicts who might be interested in the slot based on past behavior. The plugin offers the slot to the selected patients via text and automatically rebooks the first patient that confirms. QueueDr also offers automatic rescheduling for no-shows and bulk rescheduling when physician schedules change. Even more than traditional automated scheduling systems, this software has the potential to dramatically reduce staff time devoted to appointment scheduling.
Initial steps toward more automated scheduling
If the levels of automation seen in two-way real-time integration and plugins such as QueueDr seem like a lofty goal at the moment, we recommend the following:
- Pursue incremental steps toward integration. Automate the process of checking appointment requests against open slots and/or establish a daily feed of provider availability into a centralized scheduling application.
- Socialize the idea of more automated scheduling with providers. Highlight the ROI, improved patient experience and access, and possibility for increased revenue with reduced no-shows and cancellations.
- Ensure that clinicians have a voice in the scheduling standardization process.
- Build understanding among scheduling staff that automated scheduling is intended to allow them to handle more advanced responsibilities, not to replace them.
Opportunities to embed scheduling into consumer sites and provider search engines are new and limited today, but the rising influence of consumerism and provider comparison sites are likely to drive more health systems to tap into this novel scheduling channel. Investing in centralized, self-service scheduling serves not only the immediate needs of your health system, but also prepares you to take advantage of these increasingly important channels for attracting and retaining patients.
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