Online appointment booking services
Booking services online is not a new concept and is familiar to many, thanks principally to pioneering developments in the travel and accommodation industries.
Even in the relatively complex and diverse field of healthcare, there have been online appointment booking offerings available to the market for many years. However, over the past two years in particular, several new market entrants have emerged, driving increasing levels of interest amongst practices keen to use such services.
This is perhaps not surprising when considered against the backdrop of ever increasing consumerisation of IT, driven in no small part by the proliferation of smart phones and other mobile devices, which have enabled even the least IT-literate consumers to make effective use of technology.
For the purposes of this article, online appointment booking services refers to solutions that allow patients to book an appointment to see a healthcare provider, eliminating – in most cases – the need for the patient to have to phone the healthcare organisation. As listed on page 44 of the printed version of this article, there are numerous providers of online appointment booking services, and while the respective offerings continue to evolve and some don’t fit as neatly into a single classification as others, they broadly fall into two categories: practice-centric and patient-centric.
These systems are designed to enable practices to allow their existing patients to book appointments online. Typically, these solutions have placed a high priority on integration with practice management software in an effort to make the appointment booking process more efficient for the practice. This is primarily achieved by negating the need for staff to have to manually enter appointments into their practice management software, with the online booking service performing this task automatically.
Rosemary Cooper, a practice owner who developed the Appointuit online booking service, says providing better service to patients and saving practice staff time were the primary reasons her company’s solution was developed.
“In our own practice we were mostly interested in looking after our existing patients, not finding new ones,” Ms Cooper says. “Most practices have more issues related to turning patients away and finding new business is not usually a priority.”
Depending on the capabilities of the online booking system and the practice’s preferences, patients new to the practice may also be able to use such services, but these people may be given a limited set of appointment types or providers to choose from.
Typically a patient using this type of service would visit the relevant practice’s website and fill in an online form; however, as described below, this process may also be undertaken using a smart phone app.
Patient-centric solutions, on the other hand, have taken a bottom-up approach by creating websites that allow patients to search for available appointments in their area, across a range of healthcare facilities.
This approach can best be equated with the various online hotel booking services, which effectively create a market for hotels to sell latent capacity (i.e. unbooked rooms), allowing travellers to easily browse and compare options across a range of accommodation providers that meet their criteria.
Marcus Tan, CEO of HealthEngine, says the foundation of his appointment service as a health directory was a key point of difference with other systems, and he hasn’t yet seen strong demand to have the solution integrated with practice management software.
“Because we started off as a health directory, we know that for a large number of consumers the biggest issue is negotiating the health system and that’s true for doctors as well – finding specialists and allied health and that sort of thing,” Dr Tan says.
“We do integrate [with some practice management software] but we have a system where you can publish something manually.
“Ninety per cent of practices are still on that solution. The thinking around that, I suspect, is that a lot of practices don’t necessarily want integration.
“They say, ‘I don’t want you to touch my booking system – I still want a human being to decide and sanity check some of this stuff.’ It doesn’t suit a lot of practices to have that integration ...“
Smart phone apps
With one of the primary motivations for online appointment systems being improved convenience, it’s no surprise that many of the suppliers of these services have embraced smart phones, with many online appointment solutions available to patients on Apple’s iOS devices and handsets that run Android.
As these apps are free – though some require an account to be established – Pulse+IT encourages readers to take the time to download these apps and explore them in more detail for themselves.
Calin Pava, founder of Doc Appointments, says that while the majority of appointments booked through his solution originate from computers, around 35 per cent are now being made through his mobile applications, which streamlines the process for patients.
“It’s easier with the app than on the computer because the app will remember your password and user name,” Dr Pava says. “It also remembers who your doctor is. And once you have made an appointment it will email you, and integrate into your calendar so you are reminded 24 hours and then one hour before your appointment.”
Selecting a solution
While the requirements of each practice and the focus of each of the available online appointment booking services varies to a large degree, healthcare organisations that are interested in providing patients with the ability to book appointments online should be mindful of the following considerations:
If you are interested in selecting a solution that integrates with your practice software, it will pay to first ensure your practice software vendor has a relationship or at least an awareness that the appointment system is being marketed as ‘integrated’ to avoid potential data corruption and issues that may arise from any future software updates.
It is also worth connecting with other practices via your software vendor’s online forum to seek feedback from those that are already using the online appointment system you propose to set up.
What is your practice hoping to achieve?
Before reviewing the various options available on the market, practices should first define what they are hoping to achieve by offering online appointments. Having a clear understanding of the types of benefits your practice is seeking from the outset will save a great deal of time when reviewing the options and selecting the solution that best suits your needs.
When an appointment is booked online, basic patient demographic and contact information is invariably stored by the organisation providing the service. While this is not an issue in itself, practices should be mindful of how this data may be used by the appointment booking service, the details of which should be outlined in their terms of service.
Receiving appointment bookings via the Internet will invariably require that practices evaluate some of their established practice workflows and procedures, and provide staff with additional training as required. Practices will need to consider how cancellations, changes to appointments and no-shows are dealt with, although guidance from the providers of many of the appointment booking systems suggests that major adjustments to existing workflows are not usually required.
HealthEngine’s Dr Tan says that in his experience, issues relating to patients not turning up to their appointment can be reduced as a side effect of offering patients the option to book appointments online.
“No-shows are a huge problem in the services sector and some GPs complain about no-shows of up to 20 per cent, which is ridiculous,” he says. “Because of the nature of the way HealthEngine is being used, a lot of patients want to be seen by someone very quickly and there is an urgent nature to it, so there is real value. Our no-show rates are much less than one per cent.”
It is worth remembering that while planning for the commencement of the online booking service in your practice is important, the volume of patients using the service will likely be modest initially, providing the practice with an opportunity to gradually adjust to new workflows.
Marketing the service to patients
Unless your patients are aware that you offer an online appointment booking service, they are unlikely to make use of it. Marketing to patients in the waiting room and encouraging them to visit your practice website or download your selected appointment booking apps are relatively easy ways to build momentum for the new service.
When evaluating the solutions on the market, it is worth considering what features other than online appointment booking might be offered by the provider, and whether these may be of interest to your practice.
For example, OzDocsOnline’s appointment booking service is just one of a range of patient interaction functions available via its solution, with Appointuit’s service offering recently expanding to include patient recall functions.
Dubbed Appointuit Engage, the recall system can interrogate a practice database, allowing staff to easily send SMS or email recall notifications, which in turn direct the patient to book a corresponding appointment via the online service.
Hedging your bets
As with most burgeoning industries, there is currently a large amount of fragmentation in the market and practices may decide to engage with multiple online appointment providers to increase the chance of attracting new patients by having a presence on multiple platforms, for example.
A range of pricing models have emerged on the market, some of which may be more suitable to your practice than others depending on the volume of online appointments that get booked through the system.These include per doctor per day arrangements, monthly subscription fees, and fee structures based on the number of appointments booked. In some cases, practices only pay when an appointment is made. Many of the providers offer free trial periods, allowing practices to assess the various solutions before committing, so it makes sense to try before you buy.
Posted in Australian eHealth