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How Text Message Communication Improves Patient Outreach

Text messaging tools made patient outreach more efficient by meeting patients where they prefer.

text message patient outreach

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- For Bill Hambsh, CEO of North Florida Women’s Care, patient outreach and communication looked a lot more like a game of phone tag. The process, which ideally would be marked with efficiency and high patient engagement levels, too often left patients and providers stuck in a back and forth of phone calls.

For years, Hambsh and his colleagues called patients to manage appointments. Phone lines would get tied up with schedulers making up to 500 calls a day trying to get patients into the clinic, or patients trying to cancel or reschedule their appointments.

“Trying to get through the volume of calls and the voicemails that were left was just out of control,” Habmsh told PatientEngagementHIT.com in a previous interview. “Previously, filling the slot would require my staff to manage those waiting lists and call the patients.”

The process was convoluted and lengthy, leaving some patients waiting up to 20 minutes to connect with a call center represenative. Eventually, Hambsh and practice administrators found that patients would give up on trying to contact the clinic, leaving the clinic liable for patient no-shows.

And in a specialty marked by high patient loyalty – patients often wait three to five months trying to see their OB-GYN, Hambsh said – that simply wouldn’t do. Call center staffers needed to know when patients were canceling their appointments so they could fill that time slot with another available patient.

READ MORE: Using Text Messages to Boost Patient Outreach in Specialty Care

All of that was too much to handle over the telephone, Hambsh explained.

So North Florida Women’s Care tapped text messaging technology from Luma Health. These tools reach out to patients when it is time to schedule an appointment, allow patients to confirm or cancel or reschedule appointments, and even connect with new patients recently referred by their primary care.

The decision to implement text message outreach was an easy one, Hambsh said. The technology was automated, meaning there was little room for human error and could bring a level of efficiency that was unprecedented at North Florida Women’s Care.

“Within 15 minutes, I could pretty much tell this was something worthwhile,” Hambsh recalled. “The main reason for that was because of the abilities to take some manual processes that we had in the office and convert them into a fully automated system.”

The tool was also cost efficient, Hambsh said, which for better or for worse is always an essential question for any organization adopting a new technology.

READ MORE: Healthcare Orgs Tap Text Messages for Patient Appointment Reminders

Additionally, implementing the tool proved relatively simple – or at least a simple as these digital overhauls can be. Armed with the knowledge that organizations get bogged down during the technology implementation process, Hambsh was sure to select a vendor that would work alongside him and practice administrators to iron out the details of implementation.

Hambsh and his team also decided to do an incremental implementation that made it easier for call center staffers to become accustomed to the text message technology.

The results have been positive, he added. For one, patient no-show rates have gone down.

“Keeping my docs busy actually has reduced my no-show rate by half,” Hambsh reported. “This is partly due to the fact that, previously, patients calling to cancel or reschedule their appointment would sit on the phone holding for 10 to 20 minutes, due to the volume of calls that a call center department was managing.”

Now, he continued, patients can send a text through the secure messaging tool saying that they cannot make the appointment. And as a result, it is easier for Hambsh and his team to get other patients in the door.

READ MORE: Using Automated Patient Outreach to Improve Patient Communications

The text messaging tool has also increased the clinic’s referral conversion rate by 25 percent. As noted above, it was difficult for call center staffers to get in contact with new patient referrals because the phone was not always a convenient method of communicating.

Using the text message outreach, North Florida Women’s Care was able to identify itself to referral patients and reach those patients where they are.

The text messaging platform has also opened the door for overall practice improvement, Hambsh explained. Analytics gleaned from the messages have proven helpful, as have tools aimed at addressing online reviews.

Previously, the clinic’s online review presence has been less than stellar as mostly outlier patients have published negative online reviews to different websites. A patient with a good experience usually is not moved to leave a review unless prompted, Hambsh explained. This is because patients expect their care to be good.

The text messages provide that opportunity to prompt patient reviews.

“We ask through text messaging for the patient to rate their encounter from one to ten,” Hambsh stated. “If they score between eight and ten, it links them to whatever review cite we want online, from Google, or Facebook. We can use that to build up our scores on different sites. If it's less than an 8, we do an internal survey, and it allows us to manage the feedback internally, and keep that from being publicly reported.”

Text message communication proved effective because of the patient panel the clinic serves, Hambsh acknowledged. By nature of the specialty, most of the patients visiting North Florida Women’s Care are younger and more tech savvy, meaning they are poised to adopt text message outreach into their healthcare experiences.

Of course, North Florida Women’s Care leverages other patient engagement technology, primarily the patient portal.

“We have a patient portal and I feel it's pretty robust,” he said. “But our utilization of the portal was not near as high as I wanted it to be. And, I think it's just a challenge of people remembering their logins, and passwords and, how many different things they have to track.”

Text message outreach is a more accessible and more streamlined approach to patient engagement, Hambsh added.

However, technology is not a panacea, Hambsh acknowledged. While the text message communication has improved patient relationships with the practice, there are some things that cannot be resolved with a digital message. Delivering bad news, for example, will still require a telephone call or in-person visit, Hambsh explained.

“There are times when technology is inappropriate and you do need to talk to the patient traditionally over the phone,” Hambsh concluded. “With abnormal test results, it's not something you want to be told by text message, that you've got breast cancer.”

But that is in cases where the provider needs to have a deeper, more detailed conversation about patient care, he said. As more organizations look for more efficiency with patient outreach, technology can help fill in gaps. Paramount to those efforts will be utilizing technologies that are most salient to the patient population at hand.

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