Choosing a winning online scheduling tool:

Key Considerations for Health System Executives

Speed and convenience. This is the mantra of today’s tech-savvy consumers, who want instant access to information that can inform their decision-making, as well as a convenient way to follow through with an online appointment or purchase. In the healthcare industry, more than 60% of patients say they would switch physicians to get an appointment quickly, and, more importantly, 40% of patients would switch physicians for online access to appointments.1

Unfortunately, healthcare systems have struggled to keep pace with consumer expectations. System complexity, information silos, a delay in technology adoption, and physician resistance have all stood in the way of giving patients what they really want: the ability to schedule healthcare appointments online. The healthcare systems that can capitalize on this growing market opportunity will reap critical advantages in patient satisfaction and long-term loyalty. The following guide is designed to help healthcare system executives understand the choices available and key considerations in implementing an online scheduling tool.

Online scheduling fits their busy lifestyles and caters to their preferences. Providing this valuable service increases patient satisfaction and builds more loyal patient relationships.

Healthcare system benefits of online scheduling

Today’s connected consumers are demanding faster, easier access to healthcare appointments. Giving consumers what they want, when they want it, is perhaps the most compelling reason to implement an online scheduling tool. But there are many benefits to your healthcare system, and here are some of the most important:

  • Increase patient satisfaction. More than 80% of patients are interested in booking appointments online.2 Online scheduling fits their busy lifestyles and caters to their preferences. Providing this valuable service increases patient satisfaction and builds more loyal patient relationships.
  • Improve Staff Productivity. Calling a healthcare provider’s office to make an appointment is a familiar model for both patients and doctors, but it is inefficient. Research shows that each phone-based appointment takes eight minutes of staff time.3 Automating the appointment-making process frees office staff to focus on more productive activities. It also saves time for patients and has proven to be one-third faster than making phone-based appointments.
  • Boost your market competitiveness. According to Accenture, about one-fifth of healthcare appointments were made through online scheduling in 2016, a 9% increase from 2015. they also predicts that by 2019, 64% of patients will schedule appointments digitally (an increase from 34% in 2016).4 This trend ensures that if you’re not offering online scheduling, patients will look for it from other healthcare systems. It can also make your providers more competitive in their local markets. By a two-to-one margin, patients say they would choose providers that are farther away but have online scheduling over those that are closer but lack the capability.5
  • Grow your healthcare ecosystem revenue. Automating patient appointments through an online scheduling tool can fill open, no-show, and cancelled appointment slots quickly and efficiently. It can also promote providers in your system who have more availability during a consumers preferred time slot to ensure consumers stay in network. When healthcare providers have fuller schedules, the result is an uptick in revenue for the entire healthcare system.
  • Facilitate the shift to a patient-centric healthcare system. Patients are now healthcare consumers and comparison shop for providers with an eye for convenience and service. Offering an online scheduling tool is an important step in the process of becoming a patient-centric organization that puts the consumer first. It will also generate valuable patient data that can be analyzed and acted upon to provide care-driven engagement and nurturing.

In fact, healthcare systems that have implemented cross-promotion features have experienced a 27% lift in online bookings.7

Key features of online scheduling tools

Nearly three-quarters of patients surveyed want to be able to book and manage their healthcare appointments online, yet only 10% of current in-house solutions can meet this demand.6 When it comes to third-party online scheduling tools, healthcare system executives have a variety of choices — but not all tools are created equal. The following is a checklist of key capabilities that can help guide your decision-making.

Robust search capabilities. Before they can book an appointment, patients need to find the provider that best matches their needs. An online scheduling tool should offer a robust search engine, allowing patients to search by multiple criteria, including insurance and provider availability. The resulting provider listings should be comprehensive and easy to navigate and have a large appointment-ready audience.

Cross-promotion of healthcare providers. Some patient searches end with a provider who isn’t accepting new patients. To serve them faster and manage inventory more efficiently, an online scheduling tool should automatically show those patients other providers within the practice who are available. In fact, healthcare systems that have implemented cross-promotion features have experienced a 27% lift in online bookings.7

Multi-channel scheduling access. Online scheduling should be available across multiple channels, including your branded websites and the sites that patients use when researching physicians. The tool should optimize online bookings by alerting patients to new openings or cancellations, as well as automatically triggering follow-up texts or email reminders about their appointments. For those patients who are slow to transition to online channels, the tool should still provide a call center option, allowing patients to use their phones if that is still their preferred channel.

Native mobile app (iOS and Android) access: Mobile use has doubled in the past five years, and more than three quarters of U.S. adults now own smartphones.8 Mobile has become the primary screen for the majority of Internet users, with smartphone owners spending more than three hours each day on their devices.9 These on-the-go consumers expect real-time mobile access to healthcare provider information, as well as the ability to schedule appointments with their choice of providers. The online scheduling tool should be optimized for mobile users to capture a greater share of this growing audience.

Creative and highly functional healthcare provider listings. One of the most important aspects of an online scheduling tool is the healthcare provider database. It should be simple for providers to sign up and populate their listings, and the tool’s business rules engine should allow providers to control and customize their information. This ensures providers maintain autonomy over their own schedules.

White labeling/healthcare system branding. An online scheduling user interface (UI) should feature your healthcare system branding — not the tool’s branding. This includes the patient experience on your webpages (i.e., booking directly from your site, not being redirected), as well as on third-party sites. In addition, all pre- and post-appointment reminders and email messages should display your branding.

Predictive analytics and machine learning. An online scheduling tool will generate a large volume of data that can be mined for insights into patient behavior and needs. These insights can be used by healthcare system marketers to align supply and demand, improve provider access, and increase patient engagement. An online scheduling tool should offer a robust predictive analytics engine and self-serve dashboard to enable these capabilities.

Functionality with existing data systems. The data collected through an online scheduling tool should not reside in a silo; instead, it should feed all customer data systems, such as your CRM and EMR, to enrich marketing, sales, and patient support. An online scheduling tool should be able to plug directly into many of these systems to seamlessly and securely match and append patient records with new data.

External API to integrate disparate systems. An online scheduling tool should offer API access to upload data to some custom or in-house systems. This could include your EMR or practice management system.

Seamless Integration & Implementation. Look for an online scheduling vendor that works with your IT team to handle the heavy lifting, setting you up to provide a consistent user experience across channels.

Work with vendors who have gone through the certification process to work with your EHR/EMR system (App Orchard, Epic Open Scheduling, Allscripts Developer Program, and more) and ensure they offers API access to upload data to custom or in-house systems. This allows schedules to be read/write in near real time and prevents duplicate patient records (by following your current patient matching logic).

Minimize new processes your team must learn by ensuring your vendor gives you the ability to customize calendar rules to match your provider’s scheduling preferences. For example, directing types of appointments to different booking channels, limiting when self-scheduled appointments can be created (e.g., no less than 24 hours before), limiting the number of new appointments per week, or setting appointment availability to expire after a period of time.

There are many features to consider, and it may seem overwhelming at first. Simply put, a best-in-class online scheduling tool will provide several core capabilities that optimize the patient and provider experiences. The tool should offer patients a robust search engine, multichannel access points, intuitive cross-promotion of available providers, and automated reminders about their appointments. For your healthcare system and participating providers, make sure there are strong branding or white-labeling options, as well as seamless platform integration, easy-to-use dashboard and analytics, and scalability — so that as adoption grows, the online scheduling tool will grow with you.

Knowing the demographics of your patient population can help guide you toward an online scheduling tool that offers both digital bells and whistles to engage a younger user base, as well as simpler online and phone-based options that appeal to an older audience.

Choosing the Right Vendor

Identifying the online scheduling features that are most important to your healthcare system is a critical first step in the decision-making process. But there are other considerations as well, including partnering with an online scheduling tool vendor that is the right fit for your healthcare system’s business goals, staff capabilities, management support, and financial resources. Know the answers to the following questions before you begin the evaluation process.

  • Who are our consumers? Half of consumers want digital access to healthcare appointments, and the percentage increases for younger generations, including Millennials and Generation X.10 Knowing the demographics of your patient population can help guide you toward an online scheduling tool that offers both digital bells and whistles to engage a younger user base, as well as simpler online and phone-based options that appeal to an older audience.
  • Which department will ‘own’ the tool — from installation, through training and adoption, to ongoing use? An online scheduling tool can be treated as a sales, marketing, patient support, or information technology (IT) application. Each of these departments should provide input into how the tool is integrated into your system’s business — but it is important to put one department in charge. This will help you understand what kind of services you will need from the vendor (i.e., onboarding, training, strategic services), as well as the primary stakeholders that will be accountable for the tool’s adoption and ROI.
  • How can we make the financial investment necessary to make the tool a success? An online scheduling tool is a significant investment that will require the ongoing commitment of management and staff to truly enhance the patient experience with your healthcare system and deliver the expected financial return. When evaluating vendors, make sure you understand what is included in the base price (e.g., onboarding, training, integration with existing platforms), what the per-provider or access-point fees are (and whether there is a minimum or maximum on either), and what features are add-ons (e.g., API access, reporting or strategic consulting).

In summary

The time has come for healthcare systems to step more fully into the digital age by providing patients with fast, easy online access to appointment scheduling. Patients now treat healthcare like other commodities in their lives —making the best decisions for themselves and their families based on the quality of care, cost, and convenience. Online scheduling is a vital tool that can address these needs and help solidify patient loyalty to your healthcare providers. Healthcare systems that understand this consumer dynamic and evolve to a more patient-centric organization will be the most successful.

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1. Consumer Health Study, Deloitte. Intuit Health Annual Health Care Check-Up Survey

2. Annual Health Care Check-Up Survey, Intuit Health.

3. Why First Impressions Matter, Accenture

4. Online appointment scheduling a boon for millennial patients, Modern Healthcare, May 2017.

5. Stax, December 2016

6. “Losing Patience: Why Healthcare Providers Need to Up Their Mobile Game,” Accenture, 2016.

7. Healthgrades Analytics, July 2017.

8. Pew Research Center, January 2017. www.pewinternet.org/face-sheet/mobile

9. www.emarketer.com, April 2016

10. 2017 Connected Patient Report, SalesforceSpeed