How today's digital consumers challenge small practices

In a small healthcare practice, it’s easy to get so caught up in the day to day hustle that adequate attention to some fundamental business performance principles can get lost. From a business perspective, two critical objectives for a healthcare practice are maximizing encounters to fill the available slots within your providers’ calendars and optimizing the collections associated with those encounters from both insurance payers and patients. While pretty basic concepts, it is worth unpacking further some key elements that contribute to improving performance against these two basic objectives.

Firstly, today’s patients are digital consumers, and ensuring both clinical excellence as well as streamlining and enriching the patient experience are critical to acquiring and maintaining patients. Today’s consumers have become increasingly accustomed to convenience and speed in their interactions with whomever they conduct commerce. Meeting today’s patient expectations requires that providers are able to engage digitally, via online portals or mobile and web applications. Today’s consumer is all about convenience, simplicity, and self-service, and online shopping has set the bar high in terms of their expectations.

Engaging with patients digitally involves the application of technology, and many small and independent practices simply don’t have the expertise nor the time to focus on this aspect of their business. As healthcare practitioners, you have invested heavily and made considerable personal sacrifices simply to get credentialed to pursue your passion and practice your specialty. With few exceptions, healthcare providers would prefer to keep their focus on patient care and minimize the administrative burdens associated with operating a business. Fortunately, there are lots of great software solutions that can be readily accessed to help small practices remain competitive in terms of what they can offer their patients.

In terms of re-visiting the two basic business objectives introduced earlier, are you maximizing your opportunities to fill your calendar? Some of the digital engagement capabilities that can assist practitioners include:

  • Practice management tools that track scheduled and confirmed appointments by provider and offer staff real-time visibility to vacant timeslots

  • Patient portals that offer self-service capabilities allowing patients to submit intake forms and request appointments

  • Capabilities to send automated reminders to patients, either via text message, email, or both

If you are not already using or investigating these types of patient engagement, you risk falling short of patient expectations in terms of how they engage with your practice, and you are missing opportunities to keep your appointment calendar full.

In order to keep patients returning, you must provide them with pleasant experiences while they are in the presence of you and your staff, and that requires attention to detail. The ability to provide attention to the details requires time – staff cannot be so preoccupied that they cannot give ample attention to ensuring positive patient experiences. Pleasant demeanors are also easier to maintain if staff are not stressed and oversubscribed with administrative burdens not directly associated with patient care. Shorter waiting times also contribute to more positive patient experiences. In short, freeing more of your staff’s time to focus directly on the patient while they are physically engaged with your practice can go a long way towards ensuring that they return in the future and refer family and friends to your practice.

Once you’ve maximized the available time in your calendar and are providing positive experiences for your patients, it is critical to ensure that you maximize recovery of your accounts receivable (A/R) in the shortest amount of time. There are two aspects to this, optimal claims handling and management, and optimal recovery of patient balances.

Ensuring that your practice can optimize recovery from commercial and government insurance payers involves maintaining accurate and current patient demographics, securing referrals and preauthorizations when required, accurate coding, timely submissions, consistent follow-up on rejected, unpaid and aging claims, and persistent denial management and prevention. All of the above again requires considerable time, and while many of these functions are better performed by in-house staff, freeing staff from some of these off-core administrative burdens can ensure that they have adequate time to focus on the patient experience discussed earlier.

Patient payments have always represented significant contributors to revenue in dental practices, though as high-deductible medical plans continue to gain popularity with consumers, patient balances are becoming far more material in medical practices. Collecting balances from patients is one of the most critical “necessaries” that can risk a positive patient experience. How easy are you making it for your patients to pay? Do you accept electronic forms of payment? Are you able to accept the forms of payment that your patients prefer? If you are only sending paper monthly statements to your patients, you are likely experiencing considerable delays in recovery and having to write-off significant balances or accept material decreases after referring patients to collections. Fortunately, there are opportunities to employ managed software services to streamline patient payments, either by making payments an option on mobile and web-accessible portals, or by sending text and email messages with links that allow patients to make payments, or both. These capabilities can also be leveraged to generate “soft collections” programs, where more friendly and less threatening patient engagement can occur relative to outstanding balances.

In summary, many healthcare providers, particularly those serving the market via solo, small, and independent practices, are too busy caring for their patients to give adequate focus to keeping their businesses healthy. In these circumstances, it makes sense to consider leveraging the services of shared specialists, who can free more provider staff time to focus on the patient experience while also ensuring that the practice is optimizing collection of A/R and is leveraging appropriate tools to offer today’s digitally savvy patients the experiences that they expect.

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