Behavioral health clinics across the nation continue to absorb a wave of clients struggling with mental health. The long-term psychological effects of recent national and world events will likely take years to untangle. In the meantime, waitlists for mental health treatment are growing. Managing prospective clients is more complicated than adding names to a piece of paper. If you’ve thought of getting to the top of your patient waitlist management game, now is the moment. The influx of patients seems unlikely to ease any time soon, and a strong waitlist strategy can help deflect some of the strain.
What is Effective Waitlist Management?
What does it mean to “manage” a waitlist? In essence, it means approaching prospective clients with organization and intentionality, and keeping an active dialogue with them as you wait for appointments to free up. Here are some strategies to keep your waitlist proactive rather than reactive.
Decide Who, What, Where, and How
Establish an organized patient waitlist management system and dedicate one staff member to manage it. Some practices use simple spreadsheets, while others have more complex functions built into their EHR. Regardless of the method you choose, your waitlist will need to include the following information about each prospective patient:
- Contact information
- Availability for appointments (days of the week, times of day)
- Why they’re seeking treatment
- Any preferred provider demographics (i.e. gender, age, race, etc.)
- Name of preferred provider, if applicable
- Who referred them, if applicable
Decide How to Prioritize Waitlisted Clients
When availability with a provider opens up, how will you decide which patient to contact first? You might default to whomever has been waiting for that provider the longest. Some practices also factor in the severity of the mental health crisis when deciding who to prioritize for open slots. Whatever system you choose, make sure the team member tasked with managing the waitlist understands it.
Keep In Touch with Waitlisted Clients
Unless your waitlist time is very short—think under four weeks—it’s crucial to follow-up with waitlisted patients at regular intervals. This serves several purposes: first, to keep your list updated with changes to insurance coverage or contact information. Second, touch-ins allow you to remove prospective patients who no longer wish to schedule an appointment. Some patients on your waitlist may begin treatment at another clinic, or simply change their mind altogether about seeking treatment.
Preventing that patient drop-off is another important reason to schedule check-ins. When prospective patients don’t hear from you, they are more likely to find another clinic or give up on the idea of treatment. Don’t assume that they will contact you first to check their status on the waitlist, particularly if you treat patients whose mental health challenges affect their energy and mood. You may return to your waitlist when appointment times open up only to find that your stable of prospective clients has shrunk dramatically.
Suggest Alternate Providers When Possible
Some prospective patients will specify a certain provider that they’d like to see. While it’s important to respect all clients’ wishes, it may be more helpful to the client and to your practice if you can suggest an alternate provider who can see them sooner—as long as the alternate provider fits the demographics profile, treatment modality, and area of expertise that the prospective client needs. Some clients will decline and request only one specific provider, but some will be open to seeing another recommended clinician.
Guiding patients to appropriate providers who have more availability can make your practice more profitable and can help patients get the help they need faster.
Decide How to Fill Cancellations
Sometimes, clients will cancel at the last minute. That’s a fact of life for behavioral health providers. In order to recoup the lost income from that empty slot, you’ll need a system for contacting interest prospective clients as soon as you know of the cancellation.
Decide who at your practice will make those calls, and how they will determine who to contact first. You’ll need to anticipate what to do if the first client(s) on the list don’t answer the phone or respond to a text right away. Some clinics simply continue down the list, contacting prospective clients, and the first client to respond automatically get the appointment. Whatever your solution, you’ll need to make the policy clear to those on the waitlist.
Why is Patient Waitlist Management Important?
Competent waitlist management affects the ongoing health of your practice and creates an environment where you can help potential clients to access services as quickly as possible.
When prospective clients receive periodic touch-ins from your practice, and when you work with them to identify providers with prompt availability who may fit their needs, the clients feel cared for. They see that your practice is actively working toward getting them into treatment, rather than just putting them on a list and shoving it into the back drawer.
Clients who feel cared for are less likely to look elsewhere for services. This keeps the pipeline to your client roster full, and a full pipeline is vital to financial stability. After all, if your practice is doing its job, many of your patients will eventually get better and exit treatment, leaving holes to be filled by new patients.
Additionally, your referral sources are watching to see how you care for the clients that they send your way. Referring providers would rather send clients to a practice that will proactively work with them to provide treatment, even in the face of long wait times, than send them to a practice where they will feel forgotten about before they even get a first appointment.
Strategic waitlist management is another step in the process of caring well for your patients. An intentional strategy can help you manage this challenging aspect of your business and serve those who entrust you with their mental health treatment.