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Easier Appointment Scheduling Can Boost Patient Access to Care

When it comes to boosting patient access to care, providers need to shift their focus on easier appointment scheduling to get the job done.

Developing strong patient engagement strategies is critical for any provider, particularly in this value-based healthcare world, but facilitating actual access to care may be an equally critical hurdle.

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According to Irene Vergules, a medical call center consultant who has worked with organizations including Mercy Health and Temple University Health System, helping patients get access to the front door is a vital part of bolstering patient engagement and patient satisfaction.

“People need to understand that customers or patients are still customers,” Vergules told PatientEngagementHIT.com in a recent interview. “We need to really look at what does our access look like to our providers.”

Patients are not necessarily going to return to a practice simply because they’ve previously been patients there. Good customer service will go a long way in maintaining retention rates, and that customer services starts with making sure patient needs are met during the appointment-making process.

But healthcare organizations are not placing enough focus on retention, Vergules says.

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“I think that people assume that customers will just… ‘Well they’ve always been our patients.’ Well if there’s choice, you need to compete with that choice,” Vergules asserted. “People need to really start to take focus on what their access looks like. How easy is it to gain access to their providers, to their services, to their hospitals? I think people are still not really looking at that very critically.”

But how can practice leaders determine their accessibility?

“Sometimes it’s a very simple question. Dial your own number and see if you can get through. I think people tend to overlook that, and say, ‘well they’ll call back,’ or, ‘I just don’t have enough staff.’ And there’s excuses.”

When a provider tries to access her own practice, she gets a window into the world of the patient and better understands the difficulty patients sometimes encounter in getting a timely appointment that fits their needs.

It is also important to assess and prioritize what patients are looking for in terms of access to care, rather than focusing on what the practice wants to offer.

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“What are patients looking for in terms of access? What is their definition of access? As opposed to your availability for an appointment,” Vergules advised.

This approach does not need to completely inconvenience the provider, either. By learning what patients need in terms of appointment availability, hospital leaders can shift practice workflows to best accommodate both patients and providers.

“Know what your customers are expecting in terms of access, and then work to make those things happen,” Vergules explained. “Make those availabilities available. Look at your schedule. Make sure that your providers are seeing patients. Make sure that anyone who calls can actually get an appointment, that they don’t have to be squeezed in or kind of worked in to get an appointment.”

It’s also helpful to employ some healthcare technology to get the job done. Instead of manually assessing patient trends and transferring them between different appointment times, practices can employ technologies that enhance patient and practice communications.

These technologies can help call center managers analyze patient needs and better adjust clinician workflows to account for those needs.

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“How quickly can someone be picked up? How productive are my staff in answering those calls? I’m working with a client right now and they have no idea how many people can’t get through by phone, and that’s a huge opportunity loss.” Vergules uses Revation System technologies with her clients to help answer those questions and solve scheduling problems.

“You need to be able to quickly know and have a pulse on what is going on any time of the day in terms of access.”

Of course, boosting patient access to care and patient engagement goes beyond just getting the patient’s foot in the door. Following care encounters, providers need to reach out to patients to ensure they are getting the follow-up care and education that they need.

“I think a lot of education has to happen with patients at all levels during any interaction,” Vergules noted. “So one of the things that I do work on is discharge patients and calling to see how they are doing post hospital stay.”

All across the healthcare industry, professionals are working on improving their patient outreach strategies, ensuring that they are getting the care that they need at the right time. Much of that work involves self-reflection and determining what hospitals are doing well and not well to connect with their patients.

“We need to be the ones doing a better job doing the outreach and trying to connect to those patients to see how things are going. To see what we can do better, to see if we can get them in to see a provider sooner, and being those advocates,” Vergules maintained. “Trying to get ahold of those patients and trying to make sure we connect with those patients are those kinds of strategies that we are all tackling now.”

Ultimately, these kinds of outreach strategies – between patient access to care and follow-up care – are all about providing better patient engagement and boosting patient satisfaction. So long as patients have choice in their providers, healthcare organizations will need to cater to patient needs in order to maintain their client base.

“I think that anything that yields access to patients is seen as a huge opportunity for patient engagement,” Vergules said. “So anything we can do to gain access to our providers from a patient perspective – quicker, easier – that really leads to a lot of patient satisfaction and patient engagement.”