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Patient scheduling is one of the most critical workflows to optimize at your behavioral health practice because it is one of the most frequent tasks on any given day. As with so many administrative processes, technology has revolutionized appointment booking, offering practices the option to let patients do their own scheduling online with no input from staff.

Yet mental health practitioners are split on whether to adopt this method. Does patient self-scheduling yield too much control over the practice calendar? On the other hand, have clients have come to expect this convenience?

Here’s everything you need to know about patient scheduling, and how to determine whether it’s right for your practice.

What is patient self-scheduling?

Patient self-scheduling means patients can schedule an appointment themselves, without needing confirmation from a staff member or provider. This is accomplished through online appointment scheduling, where clients choose from a list of available appointment times. Their selection then appears on the practice calendar.

Some software systems allow clients to request an appointment, which staff must review and confirm. Others allow patients to schedule and confirm their appointments.

Pros of self-scheduling

Letting patients book their own appointments boasts several advantages over traditional scheduling methods:

  • It’s convenient for patients. Patients don’t have to call a staff member or send a message and wait for a callback. They don’t have to contact your office at any specific time. They simply request an appointment at a moment most convenient for them, from the comfort of their computer or mobile device. Modern consumers have come to expect self-scheduling from many other service industries: salon visits, car repairs, tax preparation, even grocery pickup can be scheduled online nowadays.
  • Patients can book outside of office hours. Many patients have more time to make appointments and manage their personal care outside of regular business hours. One study of patients who book online found that as many as 29 percent did so outside of their healthcare provider’s typical office hours. Constant availability to booking means that fewer patients will forget or put it off.
  • It saves your staff time. With patient online scheduling, you and/or your staff answer fewer phone calls, receive fewer emails, and spend less time entering patient information into the calendar. This is one of the major strategies to improve the flow of front office work.
  • It helps you fill empty slots. Every mental health provider is eager to cut down on sudden cancellations. Self-scheduling can help fill the empty appointments that are left behind. Once they become available, they appear in the patient scheduling calendar, and patients looking to book immediately can take those slots.
  • It’s an easier path to a first appointment. The fewer steps involved in setting up an appointment, the better. Prospective patients are more likely to schedule when they don’t have to complete multiple steps to do it, and online booking is so much simpler than emailing or playing phone tag.
  • Research supports it. A review of the literature about patient scheduling software reveals “the advantages of automated patient self-scheduling for health care organizations in the form of labor savings, information transparency, cost reduction, cycle time, patient satisfaction, patient accountability, patient information, patient time savings, physician punctuality, patient loyalty, and patient attendance.”

Cons of patient self-scheduling

Despite its advantages, there are some elements of patient scheduling that may make providers hesitant to adopt it.

  • It’s harder to assess “good fit” clients. When new clients schedule their own appointments, you and/or your staff lose an early opportunity to evaluate their needs and whether your practice is best suited to help them. You leave it to the patient to determine whether their needs match your capabilities.
  • It’s harder to check insurance coverage. There can be a great deal of nuance regarding what insurance policies will and won’t cover for behavioral health. Without speaking to a staff member before the appointment, a patient may arrive to discover that they have less coverage than they thought for the treatment they need.
  • Not every patient is tech-savvy. Patients with little tech experience may find online scheduling off-putting. You’ll need to maintain some level of “traditional” scheduling methods to accommodate them.
  • Some patients won’t give personal information online. Online scheduling naturally requires disclosure of demographic, health, and insurance information over the internet, and not all clients will be comfortable with that.
  • You’ll have to sync calendars. Since you will also maintain some level of appointment booking via phone calls or email, you’ll have to make sure the online calendar syncs reliably with staff calendars to avoid overbooking or double-booking.

Platforms for patient self-scheduling

Self-scheduling can be done through cloud-based scheduling software. When shopping for a patient scheduling platform, seek one that is designed specifically for the nuances of behavioral health booking. A mental health practice may offer different appointment lengths based on insurance, provider, and treatment type, and will need to screen new patients for symptoms of mental health challenges.

Keep in mind that the software must integrate well with your EHR and your existing staff calendar. Many EHRs offer online scheduling features as part of the EHR package. You’ll also want something that can capture cursory information about a new client’s insurance status.

Remember that healthcare solutions must remain HIPAA compliant and protect patient data at all times. Booking a mental health appointment requires sensitive information to be shared, and your patients want to know that their info is safe with you.

Finally, check the cost of the scheduling solutions you’re considering. Will it fit within your budget?

Non-self-scheduling methods

Any scheduling method that requires the input of a staff member or clinician is not considered “self-scheduling.” Some of these methods have been around for decades, while others are relatively new. They include:

  • Scheduling via phone call
  • Sending an email to request an appointment
  • Booking via online chat with staff

These methods have their own pros and cons.

Pros of non-patient scheduling

  • It’s a more personal touch. When clients speak with staff, on the phone or online, it’s an opportunity for that client to experience a personal connection with your practice. Self-scheduling forms are efficient but don’t easily communicate the atmosphere of your office and staff.
  • You can better assess a patient’s situation. When staff and clinicians are involved with scheduling, they have the chance to ask questions about the patient’s symptoms and expectations. They may be able to direct patients to providers who more closely fit their needs.
  • Requires less technical knowledge. Some of the more traditional methods, such as phone calls, don’t require computer use and are less prone to tech glitches.
  • Staff have more control over the calendar. You don’t have to worry about syncing the self-scheduling calendar with the staff office calendar, and you or your staff make every decision about what’s on the docket for the day.

Cons of non-patient scheduling

  • You and/or your staff may not be available when patients need you. If a patient is at work or school during your office hours, scheduling might be difficult for them.
  • Your staff will do more work. They will have to review appointment requests and/or manage phone calls and emails. This can represent a significant amount of work time.
  • Clients may become discouraged by an overly-involved scheduling process and fail to follow through.
  • You may need to invest in training. Depending on the size of your practice, you may need to invest in phone training for your scheduling staff.

How scheduling methods impact the patient experience

In general, the convenience of self-scheduling increases patient satisfaction. Surveys have found that a striking 80 percent of patients say they prefer a healthcare provider who offers an online scheduling option.

On the other hand, clients who find communication with a practice slow or cumbersome are more likely to get frustrated. That’s not good for your retention rate or your reputation.

Online scheduling also relieves any stress the patient may feel about making time to connect with your office during office hours. Busy individuals will likely appreciate the capability to schedule at any time, as soon as it crosses their mind to do so.

Keep in mind that the patient experience with self-scheduling may not be all positive. Clients who aren’t tech-savvy will be annoyed if it is difficult to make an appointment over the phone, so part of your ideal patient experience means making every scheduling method prompt and convenient.

How to determine the best scheduling method for your practice

Is patient self-scheduling right for your practice?

First, consider the demographics of your patient population. Do you primarily serve older clients who are less comfortable with technology, or do you primarily serve younger and middle-aged clients—or perhaps a healthy mix of both?

You might consider conducting a patient survey or otherwise soliciting feedback on how your patients would prefer to make appointments.

Also, consider your staff capabilities. If your existing staff are overwhelmed at the volume of appointment scheduling, it may be time to offload some of that work to an automated online system.

Finally, it’s important to look to the future of your practice. Even if you choose not to use self-scheduling now, stay open to the possibility down the road. Online scheduling will continue to become the norm in most industries, and with each passing year, the “digital native” generation grows older and the tech-averse population shrinks.