Patient Moments of Truth and Your Practice: Appointment Setting

January 15, 2012
George Taylor

Patients’ perceptions of your practice are influenced by key interactions they have with your office.

Patients’ perceptions of your practice are influenced by key interactions they have with your office. These “moments of truth” are points in time where patients definitively assess your will and skill to serve their medical needs. The startling part is that some of these moments of truth have little to do with clinical efficacy, but have everything to do with how they feel about your practice.

Because patients can choose to go other places with their health concerns and their referral activity, it's critical to evaluate these moments and find ways to make improvements when needed. The first of these moments of truth takes place when a new patient is looking to setup an appointment. Let's examine that interaction in more detail and find areas that it can be improved in your practice.

1. The mechanics of the process. The first element to evaluate is the actual physical dimensions of the activity. You can evaluate this by simply anonymously calling into your own practice or having a friend or family member do that for you. When you call in, look for the number of rings before you get an answer from a live person - fewer is better here. Is the phone answered by a person or a machine? If it's answered by a machine, how difficult is it to navigate the menu of choices? Were you put on hold immediately? If you are put on hold, measure the amount of time you are placed there. How much variance is there between your desired appointment time and the actual appointment time?

Another important factor, particularly if you're targeting younger patients, is the availability for online appointment scheduling. If you do this, be sure it's kept up-to-date and is integrated into your regular scheduling system so you don't end up with mix-ups.

Lastly, if you have to leave a message on a machine, keep track of the amount of time it takes to receive a call back from the staff. There are a number of interventions you can put in place to make improvements to the mechanics: replacing people with machines, setting policies around hold time or number of rings, and making policies about new patient appointment scheduling requests.

2. The “humanics” of the process. This is all about what it feels like to be a patient. What thoughts are going through their minds, what impressions are you making and how connected do they feel to your office through this simple interaction? In this area, it's important to remember that no matter how familiar you and your staff are with your office, it is being experienced for the very first time by the new patient.

For example, do you provide clear driving directions, visible landmarks, and parking recommendations to new patients? If you don't, you should. It helps them to feel confident about you and it's a small gesture that demonstrates your ability to view the world through their eyes. When you provide these directions, be as explicit as possible, particularly if you're in a large medical building with a lot of different offices. Briefly describe the decor of the lobby so as they walk in they are re-assured that they have arrived at the right place.

When you make the anonymous call to understand the mechanics, also think about the humanics. How sincerely pleasant is the first human contact you received on the phone? After the appointment has been set up, is there any communication about what to bring, what to expect, or how long the first appointment should take? Do you provide paperwork that needs to be completed in advance to speed up the intake process for you and the patient? Patients don't just want to be treated for their presenting health issues, they want to be treated as unique people that are cared for.

There is a saying that those that are faithful in little, will be faithful with much. Carefully and objectively assessing how you perform at appointment setting will impact the health and quality of your practice. As a physician it is your name and reputation on the door - make every interaction a positive representative of your character and clinical quality.

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