Despite the investment healthcare systems are making in digital marketing, creating an experience that seamlessly gets patients through the digital front door and into the doctor’s office remains a challenge.

As part of the growing trend in healthcare consumerism, patients today expect frictionless access to care. Convenience is king—it’s about location and availability on their terms with a provider that meets their care needs. What does this mean for health systems? It can be a brand-building opportunity, according to an Accenture study, with provider search and scheduling ranking second and third behind care delivery out of 10 crucial patient touchpoints. Despite the investment healthcare systems are making in digital marketing, creating an experience that seamlessly gets patients through the digital front door and into the doctor’s office remains a challenge.

Streamline getting to the digital front door

Healthcare marketers are taking a holistic view when it comes to reaching healthcare consumers where they search for care. According to a Greystone.Net and Klein & Partners study, the top marketing efforts considered very important included their public-facing website, social media and search, while activities like online reputation management and location-based marketing are considered essential. For many health systems, provider pages are the most visited part of their website. Healthcare marketers need to closely tie these multiple channels directly into scheduling an online appointment with their health system—fewer clicks to care.

Not to be forgotten as part of this digital strategy: health plans. Consumers are not only researching costs and coverage on member websites, but also searching for providers—more than any other source, according to Hanover Research’s 2019 HealthCare Consumer Annual Benchmark Study.

Seamless booking

When it comes to consumers booking an online appointment, they want an online shopping cart-like experience that meets their habits and needs. We’ve uncovered some revealing trends: Nearly half of online appointments scheduled are on a mobile device, and over 40% happen outside of practices’ open hours. Scheduling an appointment 9-to-5 through the call center or doctor’s office is no longer enough. Patients want a digital front door open 24/7.

The provider search and scheduling experience you create should help direct patients to the right provider and care setting at the time they need care. The factors that need to be accounted for in this process are important: preferred provider gender, specialty, location, accepted insurances and availability. The weekend warrior who reinjures a knee on a Sunday should be able to schedule an appointment through the provider’s website. If the preferred orthopedic doctor isn’t available the next morning, she should be able to quickly identify an appropriate provider and care setting who’s available immediately. It could be with another provider within the same orthopedic practice or an associated immediate care center nearby—or possibly even a telehealth consultation. Making this optimal patient-provider match is vital for better care, lower costs and an improved patient experience. It also gives administrators and providers control over scheduling, and it can be a brand-building experience.

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With all this said, online appointment scheduling is easier said than done. Requesting an appointment online comes with its challenges, as it still can involve time-consuming back-and-forth to finalize the appointment. Think of it as version 1.0 of online scheduling. When you look at Amazon, part of what makes their brand special is not only the easy-to-use buying experience, but also the seamless back-end experience you don’t see that powers it all. Health systems need to focus on creating that experience with real-time, accurate online scheduling. This means integrating with their practice management system and automating each provider’s intake protocols and scheduling rules. On the other end, patient portal-based online scheduling applications are robust, but typically lack the capabilities to schedule new patients and don’t always offer the best scheduling experience. Is your patient portal offering alternative providers if their current provider isn’t available at the time of need—or is it dead-ending them? Can the patient portal support scheduling from all digital entry points, including third parties like payer member portals? Make sure you can direct your patient to optimal care in these scenarios.

Engage with patients in a meaningful way

Proactive communication before and after the appointment can help improve the patient experience, reduce care gaps and lower costs. One challenge outpatient practices face is no-shows. To reduce the number of costly no-shows, many health practices today will send reminders via email and/or text to confirm a scheduled appointment. We’ve seen practices who’ve implemented this approach minimize no-shows to 3-5% of appointments booked. As part of these notifications, healthcare practices should consider including information like health insurance documentation and patient video education, which can help patients better prepare for their visit in advance. Additionally, sharing information about the visit ahead of time can help set important appointment expectations. This can include out-of-pocket costs, a breakdown of insurance coverage, potential tests and/or procedures and additional information on the doctor and/or health system.

Post-visit engagement is just as critical. Connect with patients immediately to book follow-up appointments and complete a patient experience survey. Consider providing notifications on prescription refill reminders, as well as prompt patients to schedule an appointment for a variety of milestones based on prevention and wellness campaigns, such as annual flu shots and mammograms. This enables providers to encourage preventive care and to increase patient compliance with comprehensive care plans.

Keep provider data accurate

Provider data serves at the foundation of this entire journey to care. However, with health systems increasingly merging, practices being acquired and physicians on the move, keeping provider data that is housed across different enterprise applications up to date is a challenge. Health systems need to create a single source of truth for their providers’ clinical expertise, location, demographics, network participation, scheduling and intake protocols. Doing so will help them ensure accurate patient-provider matching and create a more frictionless experience for patients accessing care.

Considerations moving forward

When reviewing digital initiatives moving forward, it’s important to evaluate online scheduling’s value to the organization. It’s measurable and plays a role in patient acquisition. It also expands a digital team’s impact by helping patients access quality care and providing a better patient experience. Some key considerations to reflect on moving forward: Are patient acquisition and patient experience priorities? Is online scheduling a KPI in your organization? Is online scheduling integrated into your marketing campaigns? Are you reporting to upper management on its progress? We know many health systems that are saying yes to all these questions.

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Optimizing access

Streamlining patient pathways to care, simplifying the complexities of real-time online scheduling and engaging with patients throughout their journey are key steps to improving access to care. The patient access journey does not end at the digital front door; it requires engaging patients thoughtfully and taking their needs into account, to help them make important decisions about their health. Healthcare organizations can look at scalable, automated ways to engage patients and navigate them to the right provider and setting to receive timely care and retain them over time.

Jordan Pisarcik is vice president of account management at DocASAP

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