Benefis Health System, a nonprofit, independent health system based in Great Falls, Montana, serves a 38,000 square mile region with many very rural communities. This means the health system has many patients looking to access care. Further, the health system has nearly 300 employed providers, so scheduling patients with providers across multiple locations can be a tedious process.
Ultimately, Benefis wanted to provide access to patients in a way they had not experienced before. The health system wanted to give them another option to schedule an appointment outside of calling the provider office. That prompted staff to look into online self-scheduling.
“Prior to online self-scheduling, patients were required to call the provider office to book an appointment,” said Kaci Husted, vice president of communications and business development at Benefis Health System. “While they might be connected to someone right away, if that scheduler was already on the phone, they would instead be placed on hold or they might have to leave a voicemail and wait for someone to call them back.”
It was not only taking time away from the patients that they would not get back, but also posed a risk for delaying care, she added.
While Benefis knew it wanted to give patients the ability to schedule online, it had a few caveats about their ability to do so. Above all else, a technology solution had to match patients with the right provider and appointment based on their specific care need. It also had to protect providers’ calendars and automate their scheduling protocols so that bookings were accurate.
“Experian Health’s MyHealthDirect platform offered a sophisticated solution that could integrate with our NextGen practice management system,” Husted said. “The online self-scheduling process is built on a decision support process that guides patients through a series of questions in which those answers are used to quickly and accurately match patients with the best fit provider and appointment type based on their care concern.”
“We closely monitor scheduling patterns and can see how many patients come into the process, how many exit the process, and where specifically they may drop off in the process.”
Kaci Husted, Benefis Health System
This was a must-have for Benefis to be able to eventually extend the technology to provide accurate self-scheduling across all providers and specialties, she added. The goal was to guide patients to the right provider to avoid inaccurate bookings.
“An added benefit of the solution was the analytics it could provide following implementation,” she explained. “By tracking scheduling activity over time, the technology proposed it could see exactly where we needed to hone in on and tweak our questions to optimize the patient experience and better qualify scheduling.”
There are various online self-scheduling systems on the market. Some of the vendors of these systems include AppointmentPlus, Medfusion, Odoro, Relatient, SCI Solutions, Solutionreach and WELL Health.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
Benefis made online self-scheduling available to all patients via its website, which they are able to access on any Internet-connected device.
“Patients not only had the ability to schedule care with their preferred primary care provider, they also had the opportunity to book an appointment at our urgent care facilities,” Husted said. “The solution integrated with our NextGen practice management system, which provides visibility into the calendars of each of our providers.”
This makes for a much more streamlined scheduling experience and ensures that appointment availability is consistently up-to-date when a patient is searching for and booking a visit, she added.
Almost immediately upon launching the tool, patients began using it, Husted recalled.
“We see about 50% of our patients booking after hours through MyHealthDirect, and that number is continually growing every month,” she reported. “For patients who are busy and may not have time to call us during business hours, this is a great convenience. They have the freedom to book on their own time, and via their mobile device from any location.”
The number of patients booking after hours shows the technology is working for the patient and is providing the right experience – one they are used to in other facets of their daily lives, she said.
“Another interesting result we’ve seen has been in one of our urgent care clinics,” she noted. “Since we’ve started offering online self-scheduling, 52% of the patients there are booking in that way, which is a huge success. I think this really illustrates the growing importance of providing convenience to patients, it’s what they want.”
Real-time analytics for the scheduling system have proven invaluable for the patient experience, as well, Husted said.
“We closely monitor scheduling patterns and can see how many patients come into the process, how many exit the process, and where specifically they may drop off in the process,” she explained. “By seeing clearly what the pitfalls are and where they exist, we can work closely with the MyHealthDirect team to manipulate the scheduling process and make it easier.”
It could be as simple as changing the wording for a few questions, changing the order of questions, or even removing a question entirely.
“Ultimately, it’s easy to see specifically where we are losing people in the process and how we can improve to drive a better conversion rate for patients booking appointments,” she said.
The decision support features have been hugely beneficial, not only for the patient experience but for providers, as well, Husted said.
“The specificity of the system ensures that we are placing patients into the correct provider and appointment type,” she explained. “It saves time for both the patient and the provider and allows for the best visit possible.”
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
“Allowing your patient base to schedule online offers them a modern solution,” Husted advised. “If an organization has trepidation or feelings of unsureness of getting into online scheduling, really, the only thing they can do is benefit.”
It’s a process that is pretty commonly used in other industries today, like hospitality and travel, and it just makes sense to bring that same level of customer service to patients, she added.
“Any time we can make care more accessible to patients, that is a win,” she said. “It’s the ultimate win for a health system to offer this kind of convenience to its patients. There will always be trepidation when introducing a new technology, especially from providers, but if you have the right solution that can manage the complexities of a diverse provider network, it will work, and the benefits are fantastic.”