Guest Column | December 5, 2017

How Online Tools Increase Patient Retention

By Jim Higgins, CEO and founder, Solutionreach

The shift to value-based healthcare means practices are feeling the pressure to improve their patient engagement and retention. With competition from other practices, “minute” clinics, urgent care centers, and health systems, patients have more choice than ever. If patients aren’t satisfied with their provider all it takes is a quick online search to find another one. In fact, 54 percent of Millennials have done just that in the past two years, and 42 percent are likely to switch in the coming two years. How can providers work to proactively combat these high attrition rates? Not surprisingly, the top items on patients’ wish lists for the ideal doctor are greater connectivity and convenience through online tools — both things that are easy for a practice to implement using patient relationship management (PRM) solutions.

Online Scheduling

Very few patients report they are completely satisfied with their primary care provider and the logistics of the practice. Patients want convenience and ease in everything they do, and part of that includes not making phone calls. Over three-quarters of patients feel the ability to book, change, or cancel an appointment online is important when choosing a provider, and it isn’t hard to see why. It takes about eight minutes to book an appointment over the phone. Providers offer a few available slots at a time, and patients try to match the times offered with the availability in their own calendars. It can be frustrating for both the patient and the provider.

The option to schedule or change an appointment online removes many of the barriers that patients traditionally face when scheduling an appointment. They aren’t forced to make a phone call when the practice is open, instead they can visit the practice website at their convenience, or schedule right from the practice’s Facebook page as they scroll through their feed. Patients can see the entire listing of times available for the specific type of appointment they need, and choose the one that fits best into their schedule. If something comes up down the road and rescheduling is needed, they can change or cancel the appointment with the same amount of ease. Even if the patient doesn’t realize they need to reschedule an appointment until they receive the reminder text or email, they can follow the link in the message and change the appointment without dealing with the arduous process of a phone call.

Extending Online Services

Scheduling is just one way practices engage with their patients between appointments. Other online tools can improve the overall loyalty patients feel toward a practice. Online bill pay can offer one more point of convenience for patients. Mailed invoices get overlooked with incoming junk mail or put in a pile to be dealt with later. Before long, the invoice has been forgotten and the bill was never paid. With PRM software, medical practices have the ability to send an email or text reminding patients to pay their bill along with a link to do so online. Patients are less likely to forget about a bill if they are able to take care of it in the same way they pay many other bills. That’s why credit card companies and utilities have largely moved to online statements. It really has become the norm. Adding another electronic bill and payment just makes sense for most people.

Offering a patient portal or patient app where these online services are available adds yet another level of convenience for patients. Not only can these offer the ability to schedule and manage appointments and bills, but they also provide a tools for secure messaging when needed. While most patients would prefer to simply text with their providers, there are times when a secure communication tool is needed. For example, if a patient doesn’t want to discuss protected health information on an unsecure channel, a practice can move the conversation to secure messaging. Offering patients options to meet all their needs is key to building patient loyalty.

Greater Connectivity

In addition to creating accommodating processes for patients who visit your practice, online tools can also build a strong patient-provider relationship. Medical practices should establish social media pages to interact with patients and provide helpful resources. Practices can encourage patients to follow their page and use the online interaction to bolster relationships. Social media is a place where providers can share general educational material such as seasonal tips for staying healthy or information about new research in the field. Sharing details about an upcoming patient appreciation event or holding Facebook contests can bring more followers and, in return, greater engagement. The relationships built on social media can help patients feel a personal connection with their provider, and increase their loyalty toward the practice.

Social media is also a platform for patients to easily share their positive experience. In this way, cultivating patient relationships and improving retention by using technology can help practices grow. Happy patients are more likely to share their experience in online reviews when asked, and this is becoming an important part of being discovered by new patients. Positive reviews play a large part in which provider a potential patient chooses — 88 percent trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.

But if a practice is going to engage in social media and encourage patients to leave reviews, it is important to be active. Patient and prospective patients feel it is important for a provider to respond to reviews, so a process to monitor and respond to online comments shouldn’t be overlooked. Not responding could hurt more than help.

Using online tools to engage with patients and simplify processes can make a significant difference in the patient experience. It can also improve a practice’s reputation, and help engage new patients. The end the result is not only better retention but also practice growth.