Seasonality in practice

There are ebbs and flows in medical practice volume that are connected to predictable events. If we plan for them, we can make the most of the seasons financially – and serve patients better, too.

Seasonal selling opportunities in retail are well-known: winter holidays, back-to-school, Mother’s Day, etc. It may not seem at first glance like the idea applies to us in the medical practice world – after all, many of us don’t even to think of ourselves as “selling” anything. But there are ebbs and flows in medical practice volume that are connected to predictable events. If we plan for them, we can make the most of the seasons financially – and serve patients better, too.

Right now, we’re smack in the middle of a transition point for many practices. Summer is ending. Practices may see volume creeping up – or you might think of it as “returning to normal.” If you’ve been running with fewer clinicians due to vacations, you may also be looking forward a return to higher revenues. 

Where deductibles apply, patients may want to move forward with procedures they’ve put off for financial reasons as the end of the year approaches. More bookings in the fall boost profits but also bring stress – both because the schedule will be strained and because of the pressure to make the most of the season. Once the fall rush is over, the doldrums (and lower revenues) of January may set in, as patients once more opt to delay care as deductibles reset.

The ups and downs of seasonality contribute to the stress and complexity of running a practice. But since some cyclical trends are predictable, you can plan ahead, both to capitalize on opportunities and reduce the stress of slower seasons. Here are a few ideas to make the most of predictable periods of high and low demand:

Establish a habit of thinking ahead – and communicating earlyThere’s a reason those retail holiday decorations seem to show up earlier and earlier every year: the holidays are a hard deadline, and if shoppers aren’t lured in early enough, the opportunity vanishes for another year. 

The year-end time frame for patients with deductibles is perishable, too. And unlike a retail shop, your practice can only handle so many patients at one time. Getting the word out earlier can help you make the most of year-end, plus manage your volume better by encouraging patients to book services as early as they can. This will help patients avoid missing their opportunity to maximize their health benefits.

To effectively alert patients that your schedules will be busier in the fall, consider posting a message on your website and social media and/or adding a notice to your newsletter – and do it now. To create a targeted recall list for personal follow-up, your EHR or practice management system can help. (If you’re not sure how to do it, get a tech-savvy staff member involved and have them get in touch with your vendor for help if necessary.)

Set vacation boundaries clearly. The fall holidays can create additional stress when staff and clinicians have expectations of taking time off that may not be reasonable. Be sure to set a clear policy about vacations long before the holiday season – and make sure everyone is aware of it and that it’s fairly enforced.

Capitalize on a slower January-February. For many practices, the slow period after the holidays creates its own stress as revenues sharply decline. Plan ahead for it now by paying extra attention to collections in the fall and setting aside reserves for the start of the year. 

With finances covered, you can turn the downtime of the first of the year into an advantage. Plan to make the most of the slower pace by tackling strategic projects that don’t get enough attention when it’s busier. For example, January can be a great time for intense analyses like designing a new physician compensation scheme, choosing a new EHR or PM system, introducing new service lines, opening a new office, or adding a clinician.

Promote the benefits of a less-busy office. In some parts of the country, January and February are slow even for primary care – depending on the severity of winter colds and flu. If your primary care practice is less busy, that can be the best time to recall patients who are overdue for preventive services. Patients will appreciate that they can be seen more promptly – and without any cost-sharing in many cases.

What will next summer bring? Believe it or not, it’s not too early to think about how to smooth out utilization next summer! For example, if you’re a pediatric practice, think about a mini marketing program to let parents know that school physicals are easier to book in mid-summer than right before school starts. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of communication to change peoples’ habits – so plan to communicate early and often.