The good news is that one such solution is right before your eyes. I believe that online appointment-scheduling has the power to dramatically improve the health and happiness of patients, to build the efficiency and efficacy of healthcare practices, and to bolster the overall economic welfare of the healthcare system. Claims of this magnitude are bound to meet with initial skepticism (and quite rightly!), so let me elaborate on each point in turn.
First, it should be obvious that online appointment-booking is better for patients, who are increasingly turning to the internet to ask health questions and choose doctors. Online transactions are simply faster and more convenient than their traditional alternatives. That’s why almost every industry, from retail to agriculture, has moved either partially or fully to an online model.
But it’s not just a matter of convenience; online scheduling actually improves patient access to healthcare. When booking an appointment in the US, the average patient has to wait nearly three weeks before he or she can see a doctor. That’s long enough for a small, preventable health issue to become a crisis requiring hospitalization. But patients who use my company, ZocDoc, to schedule their medical appointments online are often able to see a doctor within just 24 hours, greatly improving health outcomes.
These kinds of gains are possible through the magic of data aggregation – the same technology that has revolutionized the travel industry. When you search Kayak for airfare, you’re able to scan thousands of flights with the click of a mouse to find an available seat. Similarly, by integrating with the calendars of doctors in 19 cities across the country, ZocDoc is able to show patients thousands of bookable appointments in the blink of an eye.
This effectively unlocks a hidden supply of doctor appointments which would otherwise go wasted – appointments left vacant by our country’s soaring rate of no-shows, reschedulings, and last-minute cancellations. This brings me to my next point: how does online scheduling build efficiency and improve practice management for healthcare providers?
Implemented correctly, online scheduling also allows practices to divert human resources away from time-consuming games of phone tag with tentative patients. Physicians can thus keep their office staff available to serve patients in the office, improving the patient experience and building customer loyalty.
The benefits to practices don’t end there. By opening up their calendars to tech-savvy patients who book their own appointments flexibly and on short notice, doctors are better able to fill holes in their calendars. This, in turn, protects the bottom line for practices, which almost always operate at a fixed cost and are stung economically by patient absence and attrition. And by improving patient health outcomes, online booking holds a special promise for doctors in accountable care structures, and others who are vested financially in the welfare of their patients.
It is important to note that there is a strong business case for these systems, because we have seen time and again that healthcare providers are reluctant to adopt technologies which could slow down or financially disrupt their daily practice management. By helping providers find new patients, online booking can easily become a revenue-generating activity for most practices.
The immense benefits which our country’s healthcare system can reap by migrating to online scheduling should now be clear. Every patient who utilizes his or her newfound access to fast preventive care is a patient who will not need to later visit an overcrowded emergency room – at four times the cost. Every doctor who makes short-term, flexible care a reality is helping to lower no-show rates and fill calendar holes. These are the nuts and bolts of building efficiency and reducing spiraling costs.
There is no better time to have this discussion. With the Affordable Care Act upheld, the healthcare system will see an influx of more than 30 million newly-insured patients. This will only compound our current and well-documented doctor shortage. It is time for us as a nation to seize the solutions that unite us – as industry leaders, healthcare providers, and most importantly, as patients who deserve a timely and efficient healthcare system.
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