Getting patients to consistently come in for needed medical-office visits can help improve clinical outcomes and drive greater patient satisfaction. The arrival of COVID-19, however, forced many patients to delay care at much higher rates than prior to the pandemic.
In the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, many patients delayed care because they feared virus exposure, and some ambulatory practices even closed temporarily. Visit volumes dropped nearly 60% below pre-pandemic levels. And although those visit volumes eventually rebounded, many patients still chose to forgo care in 2021. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 Americans delayed care for serious illnesses last year.
Now, healthcare organizations face an access dilemma: Patients who delayed care over the past two years want to get back on their providers’ schedules, but that renewed and increased demand can make it difficult to see them quickly.
The implications of this wave of postponed care—57% of patients who have delayed care have experienced negative health outcomes—underscore why getting these patients in to see their providers as soon as possible should be a top practice priority moving forward.
Here are three strategies you can implement to address the current patient-access crunch and close gaps in care.
Strategy #1: Personalize your patient outreach
For many patients, staying current with their healthcare visits or those of their loved ones has always been challenging because their busy lives are filled with so many competing priorities. The pandemic further shifted those priorities, making it that much easier for patients to fall behind on care.
Engaging patients between visits reminds those who are behind on their care management to get caught up. But it’s not enough to reach out with generic messaging. Instead, sending personalized content geared toward specific patients has a stronger, twofold impact: It not only prompts patients to schedule the appointments they need, but it can also educate them about the reasons for doing so.
Automated outreach tools can streamline this process and allow your staff to message patients at scale. Whether it’s a campaign to promote mammography screenings, reminders about Medicare Annual Wellness Visits or outreach to book patients’ routine physicals, your staff can quickly create or customize messages that reach more patients in less time.
Personalizing your outreach can also boost engagement, encourage patients to get more involved in decisions about their care and improve their health outcomes.
Strategy #2: Offer patients more ways to schedule appointments
By simplifying appointment scheduling, healthcare organizations can close care gaps and eliminate a major barrier that often prevents patients from getting the care they need. Try implementing these digital solutions to make appointment scheduling more convenient and flexible for your patients.
Offer online self-scheduling
Long hold times on your practice’s phones may discourage many patients from scheduling visits, but patients who work long or nontraditional hours also may not be able to call your office during normal business hours to book an appointment.
Online self-scheduling removes these barriers and allows patients to choose an appointment date and time that best accommodates their schedule. Offering a link on your practice website or sending out a call to action through patient-outreach communications can immediately give your patients 24/7 access to appointment self-scheduling.
In fact, patients now expect an online scheduling option to engage with their providers. That means that self-scheduling is not only a great way to improve access to care, it also helps you retain patients by providing the scheduling experience they want.
Autofill reopened schedule slots
Filling unexpected open appointment slots that result from sudden cancellations is critical for keeping practice schedules full and ensuring that patients have the timeliest possible access to care. Getting patients seen sooner than planned with reopened appointment slots can help avoid no-shows, too.
Traditionally, backfilling appointment cancellations has been a disjointed and time-consuming process. Patients usually have to be on a waitlist to be eligible for a reopened schedule slot, and if they‘re not, they won’t be offered an earlier appointment.
Automated schedule-management tools, however, eliminate that system. Unlike electronic waitlists, which are far more restrictive, an automated process evaluates every potential patient who could be contacted for an earlier appointment and reaches out to those patients whose needs are most clinically aligned with the reopened slot—with no additional work by staff. Bottom line: More patients see their doctor sooner and close gaps in their care.
Strategy #3: Go digital with referral management
Referrals are an essential part of healthcare, and more than one-third of patients in the U.S. are referred to a specialist every year. Unfortunately, up to 50% of all specialty referrals are not completed, worsening care gaps for patients. And even when referrals are completed, closing the referral loop can be impossible when referring and specialty providers don’t effectively communicate with each other.
In a Phreesia survey on referrals, healthcare organizations cited two main challenges with the traditional referral process: provider communication and getting patients to the right doctor.
Although 56% of providers still fax their referrals, a more tech-enabled approach could help them replace of cumbersome processes that often delay patient access to specialty care. An automated referral management solution can pull everything related to referrals into one central hub—referred-patient details, patient-status updates, appointment scheduling and provider communications. This streamlined organization simplifies referrals management, improves care coordination and helps staff schedule patients more quickly.
For example, Digestive Health Partners (DHP), a North Carolina gastroenterology practice, previously relied on a manual referral-management process, which meant sorting through more than 600 received faxes every day, on average. That incoming volume meant that DHP staff sometimes needed up to 30 days to get a patient on the schedule after receiving his or her referral. Shifting to a tech-enabled process helped DHP staff schedule referred patients up to 13 days sooner and centralize referrals from more than 150 referring providers—all in one place.
During the pandemic, many patients decided to delay care, especially lower-income patients and those most vulnerable due to chronic conditions. For patients who skipped visits, getting back in to see their doctor quickly is vital for achieving their best possible health outcomes. As practices strive to bridge these care gaps, personalizing patient outreach, facilitating easier appointment scheduling and managing referrals with more modern technology are all productive first steps.
To learn more about how Phreesia can help your healthcare organization improve patient access and address gaps in care, click here.