Patient scheduling software is software that can be used by patients to self-book healthcare appointments, by physicians to fill their schedules, and by medical practices to synchronize patient appointments with physician and treatment room availability in order to optimize the use of time and resources. Depending on the capabilities of the software and how it is used, there can be dozens of benefits of patient scheduling software. This article discusses the seven most common benefits.
How Does Patient Scheduling Software Work?
Patient scheduling software most often consists of a cloud-based appointment booking platform which integrates with a healthcare organization’s practice management system and EHR system. Patients access the platform via a web link, patient portal, and/or mobile app to see what slots are available for their preferred physician – or the most relevant physician – and self-book appointments. The booking platform automatically adds each self-booked appointment to physicians’ schedules.
Physicians access their schedules via a web portal or mobile app and can instantly see what their schedule looks like and where gaps exist. Depending on how the platform is integrated with an organization’s practice management system and EHR system, physicians can fill the gaps by sending a text message, email, or push notification via the platform inviting patients with non-urgent health needs (i.e., patients due for a routine health check) to book an appointment in an available slot.
The patient scheduling software gives practice managers a holistic view of patients’ bookings, physicians’ schedules, and – when the platform supports patient messaging – the nature of consultations (i.e., pediatric care, immunizations, home visits, etc.). The holistic view enables practice managers to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time and that preparations are made (for example) for assisting patients with mobility issues or for consultations that may require infection containment.
The 7 Benefits of Patient Scheduling Software
Because different medical practices differ in size and operate in different ways, there is no one-size-fits-all patient appointment scheduling software. It is up to each individual practice to evaluate the options in order to determine the best patient scheduling software solution for their needs. However, whichever online patient scheduling system is selected, it should be capable of delivering the following 7 common benefits at a minimum.
#1 Improved Patient Experience
To fully appreciate how patient self-scheduling software can improve the patient experience, it is best to consider how the availability of patient self-scheduling software is preferable to a patient who lacks the confidence to speak on the phone about their condition with a receptionist, whose first language is not English, or who is too ill to speak – but capable of tapping buttons on a mobile device.
In addition, by giving patients the convenience to book appointments when the practice is closed, the control over which physician they see and when, and the ability to message the practice ahead of the appointment, patients are empowered to take responsibility for their wellbeing – leading to increased patient compliance with prescribed medications and therapies, and better patient outcomes.
#2 Minimized Patient Wait Times
One of the ways in which patient appointment scheduling software minimizes patient wait times is automated gap filling. It was mentioned above that, when a physician identifies a gap in their schedule, they can search practice databases to identify patients with non-urgent health needs and invite them to book an appointment in an available slot to fill the scheduling gap.
As an alternative, some patient appointment scheduling software can analyze appointments already booked for future dates to see if any match the available physician. These patients can then be contacted via their preferred channel of communication (i.e., text message, email, or push notification) to see if they would like to bring their appointment forward to fill the scheduling gap.
#3 Prioritized Care for Urgent Needs
The process of bringing appointments forward to fill scheduling gaps can also be used in reverse to push appointments back or reschedule appointments if a patient with urgent or complicated needs has to be prioritized. In such cases, the patient scheduling system can automatically contact patients with non-urgent appointments to advise them of the change of time/date and request confirmation.
Patients with urgent or complicated medical needs are more likely to require longer appointments or multiple appointments. To reschedule non-urgent patients manually is not only complex and time-consuming, but also prone to errors and miscommunications – notwithstanding that some patients with non-urgent appointments may become abusive over the phone when advised of the change.
#4 Reduced Cancellations & No Shows
A feature that all software for scheduling patient appointments should include is an automated patient reminder. Because some patients with non-urgent medical needs might book an appointment a long time in advance (i.e., during their next vacation from work), this feature sends a reminder to patients before appointments in order to reduce cancellations and no shows through forgetfulness.
The automated patient reminder feature should be customizable so the wording of the reminder can be adjusted to be appropriate for the circumstance. While it can be beneficial for patient attendance to send reminders that use strong and committed language, it may be inappropriate to send a strong and committed message to a patient who has made an appointment for grief counselling.
#5 More Efficient Resource Management
This benefit of automated online patient scheduling not only applies to making better use of physicians’ time, reducing the overhead of managing patient waitlists, and being able to turn off the heating earlier when a treatment room is not going to be used for the rest of the day, but it can also apply to other resources used by the medical practice.
One important resource for small to medium sized medical practices is staff training. All medical practices are required to provide HIPAA training, OSHA training, and emergency preparedness training, and it is difficult to provide group training when physicians have overlapping schedules. By scheduling patient appointments to coincide, staff training can be provided to all members of the workforce at the same time – making more efficient use of training resources.
#6 Improved Billing and Payment Processes
When patient scheduling software is integrated into a practice management system, practice managers can use the same communication tools as used by physicians to fill scheduling gaps in order to bill patients and send payment reminders. The difference between the two processes is, rather than a text message, email, or push notification directing a patient to an appointment scheduling portal, they are directed to a payment portal.
In some cases, integrations between patient scheduling software and practice management systems can support card-on-file payments – similar to those used by multiple online shopping websites. Card on file payments can accelerate collections from patients, reduce non-payments, and protect both patients and practices from credit card fraud. It is also claimed that card on file payments builds trust between practices and patients and contributes towards patient retention.
#7 HIPAA Compliant Messaging
Online patient scheduling and payment systems do not only have to be used for patient scheduling and payments. Cloud-based appointment booking platforms have to be secure by design to safeguard the privacy of Protected Health Information (PHI), and this means they can be adapted for other HIPAA compliant messaging purposes that can further improve the patient experience.
Patients may be able to raise health concerns via the platform that can be answered by a physician without the need to visit the practice. Patients may also be able to request copies of PHI or download PHI via the system, while physicians can send patients electronic consent forms to sign digitally ahead of a procedure. Practices can also use the platform to (for example) alert patients to a change in their HIPAA Notice of Privacy Practices.
Patient Appointment Scheduling Software and HIPAA Compliance
Before using patient appointment scheduling software, it is important to consider the implications for HIPAA compliance. This is because no software (of any type) is HIPAA compliant, and even the best patient scheduling software can only support HIPAA compliance. In addition, depending on how the system is accessed by patients, it may be necessary to educate patients about online security.
The reason for educating patients about online security is if, for example, the patient scheduling system connects with an EHR so patients can view their medical histories, patients need to be alerted to the risks of using weak passwords (if the system is accessed via a web portal) or not PIN-locking their mobile devices (if the system is accessed via a mobile app). All advice provided to patients should be documented in case of a subsequent disclosure of PHI attributable to patient negligence.
Workforce members must also be trained on security best practices to prevent data breaches attributable to phishing, malware, and ransomware; while system administrators must ensure the patient appointment scheduling software is configured to comply with the Administrative and Technical Safeguards of the Security Rule (compliance with the Physical Safeguards is most often a shared responsibility between the medical practice and the software vendor).
It is also important that a Business Associate Agreement is entered into with the software vendor before any PHI is disclosed to the vendor and before the patient scheduling software is integrated with a practice management system or EHR. The requirements for a valid HIPAA Business Associate Agreement can be found here; and, if practice managers have any further questions about patient appointment scheduling software and HIPAA compliance, it is advisable to seek professional compliance advice.