The Advantages of Automated Appointment Reminders

By Bob Young

Today’s consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to selecting healthcare providers. And, as insurance coverage changes, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses increase substantially, those in charge of their family’s healthcare are becoming better informed. They are shopping for and choosing providers based not only on quality of care, but also – more than ever – on cost. To compete and thrive in this increasingly retail-driven environment, healthcare providers need new ways to streamline operations and lower their costs while maintaining and even improving the level of care offered to patients.

An automated way to deliver better, more cost-effective care

Appointment reminders are one area of operation – and a key patient touchpoint – where efficiencies can easily be gained. This is typically a cumbersome, labor-intensive process, where nurses and designated personnel call or send notices to patients, reminding them of impending appointments. Today, solutions are available that completely automate this critical function, removing the costs, inefficiencies, and potential errors associated with manual execution.

Leading healthcare providers across the nation have already migrated to these automated solutions, gaining a competitive edge by passing the savings on to consumers or reinvesting those dollars to improve care delivery.

Missed appointments are missed opportunities

In the day in the life of a busy healthcare facility, appointment reminders might not seem mission critical. However, missed appointments are missed opportunities for revenue and for improving patient relations. Having a system in place to prevent and minimize no-show patients is critical to keeping staff productive and your operation profitable.

The old way

Traditionally, the old method might work like this: paid personnel print out postcards, hand write each patient’s appointment information on a separate card, stamp the stack, walk it down to the mail room, and hope it reaches the patient in time. Or, staff members personally call each patient, taking valuable time away from their core duties. Either way, this approach has drawbacks:

  • Care providers are diverted from providing care.
  • Written reminders are prone to human error, such as transposed numbers or missed information.
  • Cancellations need to be manually logged, tracked, and re-opened (often too late to be refilled).
  • Information can be inconsistently communicated, such as affected by diction, staff turnover, or even the caller’s mood.
  • It is labor intensive and extremely expensive.

The better way

Today’s automated systems work efficiently. Every day, the healthcare facility’s scheduling or appointment system sends a file of the next day’s appointments to a Web-based appointment reminder software module. This file contains each patient’s first and last name (last name used for internal results logging, not used in the actual reminder call due to HIPAA compliance issues), phone number, appointment type, appointment location, appointment time and date, and his or her doctor’s name. Some facilities also choose to include additional messages important to the nature of the appointment, such as not eating or drinking past a certain hour.

At the pre-determined time, typically between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., the appointment reminder system begins making calls to patient phone numbers on simultaneous lines. The played messages are assembled in real time by the system using pre-recorded phrases. These include common first names, the name of every physician or practice throughout the organization, dates, and times. It also includes “remember items,” such as fasting. In most cases, solutions providers work will with staff to personalize the phrases and flow before using the system.

Users tailor the script; the software does the rest

The script is based on client requirements and features a combination of pre-recorded messages selected from a user-friendly template, as well as text-to-speech. A sample of the reminder message might be:

  • Pre-recorded: “Good evening, this is Peggy from New York Radiology calling to remind you of your appointment. Your appointment is on July 21 at 1:30 p.m.”
  • Text-to-speech: “Please remember not to eat or drink anything after midnight the previous evening.”
  • Pre-recorded: “Please press 1 on your phone to confirm this appointment or press 2 to leave a message for our staff to reschedule.”

For patients who choose to cancel or reschedule their appointments, the system can transfer them to a call center operator who has access to the centralized scheduling system. During calling, the system can provide progress reports. After all calling is completed, the system generates reports displaying the results.

Eliminate inconsistencies; improve efficiencies

Automated reminder systems eliminate the inefficiencies and inconsistencies inherent in traditional, manual appointment reminder processes and deliver advantages across your entire organization:

  • Cut down the number of missed appointments
  • Maximize doctors’ time
  • Enable nurses and personnel to focus on providing care
  • Ensure consistent, HIPAA-approved delivery of patient information
  • Improve data tracking
  • Payback in a few months

Best integrated with call center suite

Alone, automated reminder systems will quickly deliver a tangible ROI. But to best realize the full capabilities of this powerful solution, healthcare providers are now integrating it with a suite of call center solutions that includes operator console, Web-based directory, speech recognition, call recording, notification, and call accounting. These organizations enjoy enhanced efficiencies, such as:

  • Having one version of the truth: appointment reminder software takes advantage of the foundation already in place, including real-time information about all patients, staff, and how they need to be contacted
  • Lightening the load on IT staff by connecting to an existing database, meaning IT does not need to worry about maintaining yet another database

Automate today; enjoy the benefits tomorrow

The business of healthcare has never been more competitive. Margins are thinner, and consumers are taking a more active and deliberate role in choosing which healthcare providers they see — and how often they see them. Leading healthcare organizations are switching to automated reminder systems to streamline operations, lower costs, enhance patient relations, and gain a competitive edge.

[From the August/September 2009 issue of AnswerStat magazine]