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Why Appointment Notification Tech Needs User-Centered Design

User-centered design for appointment notification technology can mitigate healthcare staff burnout, prevent appointment no-shows, and bolster organization finances.

Appointment notification technology is proving essential as organizations work to fill care gaps and prevent no-shows. But amid healthcare staff burnout and the need for more complex patient messaging needs, notification tools need to be built with user-centered design to yield a true return on investment.

In some ways, booking the appointment is the easy part of getting patients in for care. With self-scheduling systems being the way of the future—88 percent of healthcare organizations have said they plan to invest in online appointment scheduling if they haven’t already done so—patients can schedule their appointments with the click of a button.

But the problem arises when looking at the wait time for that appointment. Patients may have appointment booking at their fingertips, but that appointment is an average of 26 days away on their calendars, according to 2022 data from Merritt Hawkins. In some parts of the country, patients are waiting as long as 84 days until their appointment, the study showed.

And in that time, patients might forget when the visit is or that they have a doctor’s appointment at all, leaving the door open for missed appointments and money left on the table for healthcare organizations.

“If I have an appointment, I had to book a year out, what are the odds of me showing up to that appointment without some kind of digital notification? It's really crucial that practices adopt a digital notification system and make sure their patients are being reminded,” according to Robert Inman, a product manager for TeleVox.

Appointment notifications can be as simple as a clinic team member getting on the phone and calling patients to remind them of their upcoming visits. But in an increasingly digitized healthcare landscape, those more elementary systems may not be very efficient and, in fact, might cost an organization more in labor. The staff in charge of making patient calls are usually clinical team members, and their skillset is better used to provide care than on the phone.

Digital appointment notifications can solve this problem by leveraging communication channels like SMS text and automated phone calls to remind patients they have an upcoming appointment.

Data has shown that patients don’t lose out on much when notifications are automated. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania recently found that automated appointment reminders are just as effective as care team phone calls.

Although they don’t require the labor of staff in a call center or even clinical care team members to make individual phone calls, these digital reminder tools can be difficult if they aren’t designed with the end user in mind.

“When you're talking about setting up a customer's messages, it's usually pretty templated,” Inman explained.

Those templates aren’t so problematic when organizations are focused on reminding patients about a single kind of visit, like sending appointment reminders for annual wellness checks.

But in recent years, digital patient outreach has become more complex, brought on by the pandemic and its ever-changing policies. Outreach messages and reminders cannot get stuck in a system that can’t pivot, and clinic staff cannot wait for help tickets to be resolved.

“COVID created a need to work on user-friendly interfaces to allow those changes because it can't be overly technical to make those changes,” Inman stated. “Some of the people making these changes are front-end receptionists, so you do have to have a very user-friendly interface.”

User-friendly interfaces can encompass a lot, ranging from testing environments to adequate training materials. After all, quality improvement isn’t just about buying the right product; it’s about equipping the individuals using the technology to use it well and integrate it into their workflows.

“You need a multifaceted approach to training,” Inman advised. “You need your self-serve training for the people that aren't technical and don't want to sit there and wait for a meeting and a webinar.”

For example, organizations need access to video tutorials and written manuals for patient notification technology.

“But then we also take it a step further and we have an actual training resource that has weekly meetings,” Inman added. “People attend those meetings and they can ask questions.”

EHR integration will also make for a streamlined user experience, even though not every EHR system makes that possible. But when that integration does happen, it streamlines the user experience in a profound way.

“If you update everything to the EHR, users can mostly just work out of the EHR and never have to come to our portal for much except the self-service pieces,” Inman noted. “Limiting the number of screens that someone has to look at during the day is pretty crucial.”

Patient notification technologies, especially those with user-centered design, can yield a good return on investment when considering the labor costs—and impact on workforce burnout—of basic call centers or less workable reminder tools.

“When you're talking about having practices manually calling patients and trying to track down people to make sure they show up—that's something that I don't think a lot of practice employees have a lot of time for,” Inman said. “We can do that a lot cheaper and a lot more effectively, freeing up the staff to do other things and not burning out.”

And it’s not just the burnout or the labor costs; it’s the cost of the no-show.

“Usually, saving one or two appointments a month pays for your entire no-show or your entire reminder system,” Inman stated. “That's how the cost of these things can work out, especially for a smaller practice. The cost of a no-show might be much more than the cost of the reminders.”

Appointments are just the tip of the iceberg, Inman added. As healthcare organizations zero in on improving clinical quality and closing care gaps, patient outreach technology can nudge patients into their preventive screenings or check medication adherence.

“That's definitely where things can be highlighted in the future to really change things,” Inman concluded. “Appointment reminders are just the start of it. There's a lot more that can be done.”

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