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Online Medical Scheduling: To Advertise or Not to Advertise

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These services are changing the way that patients seek healthcare -- but are such websites good for your hospital?

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These services are changing the way that patients seek healthcare -- but are such websites good for your hospital?

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News By Profession

Hospital Management

These services are changing the way that patients seek healthcare -- but are such websites good for your hospital?

By Sarah Sutherland

It's difficult to think of an industry that hasn't started to make strides away from paper and towards technology for organization. Admittedly, the healthcare industry took a bit longer than others to make the change, but now its technology use is in full swing. Hospitals rely on technology to organize and protect patient data, to quickly get information to staff and even to find new patients.

Indeed, the days of scheduling patients via phone calls inspired by the Yellow Pages are gone. Now, patients find healthcare professionals in the same way that they find restaurants. Websites like Zocdoc and DocASAP allow visitors to search for doctors by area, specialty and insurance. The list of results includes more than just the doctors' addresses, however: Visitors can quickly consider individual reviews and overall ratings before easily scheduling an appointment, all on the same website.

The Pros and Cons

These websites have clear advantages for both patients and healthcare professionals. For healthcare professionals, more patients can be reached and administrators will have to schedule significantly fewer appointments by hand. For patients, the days of relying on friends for recommendations or blindly choosing a doctor are in the past, and they can schedule appointments at any time, any day, regardless of whether or not the office is open.

"Patients increasingly expect their healthcare experience to be like the rest of their world: simple, personalized, immediate and digital," explained Kevin Kumler, president of health systems at Zocdoc. "Online scheduling itself certainly helps remove the friction from patients' appointment-booking process."

However, when patients seek medical treatment without an initial conversation with a healthcare professional, some consequences can be expected. If patients book an appointment with a specialized professional without a referral, it's possible that they don't actually need that treatment at all, wasting both the doctor's time and their own. Additionally, because a primary feature of these sites is the promise of patient reviews of healthcare professionals, an organization's success could be dramatically impacted by a single review.

Since the Affordable Care Act was legalized, healthcare professionals have been moving away from private practices and towards hospitals and health systems instead. Online medical scheduling services are aware of these changes and are shifting their focus from smaller practices to larger entities.1 As a hospital management professional, how can you determine whether listing your institution's services on one of these websites is a good move?

Doctor Scheduling

Do You Have a Lot of Openings?

If your departments are already scheduling appointments for next year, you may not need one of these websites to help you with business. However, if you have a lot of openings or a high no-show rate, an online scheduling site could give your hospital the boost it needs by bringing your name up in more Google searches, or attracting potential patients who already belong to the scheduling site. According to Kumler, online scheduling sites can fill appointments that would otherwise go unfilled. "This is especially true in the case of last-minute patient cancellations and reschedules," he added.

What Is Your Competition?

Because subscriptions to these websites are typically not free, healthcare providers must register their practice(s) on the online scheduling service themselves. Since individual practices can make the decision whether or not they want to utilize these services, not all medical practices are listed on these sites. If your hospital is the only hospital in a small town or has the best cardiac center in the country, you might not be motivated by competition. However, if your hospital is one of many in a large city or your departments don't stand out in national rankings, using one of these websites could be a great way to get ahead of the competition by attracting more patients.2

Additionally, patients can view reviews for your doctors directly on these websites, and positive reviews are likely to encourage patients to schedule an appointment. "We use a closed-loop system -- this means every comment is written by a patient who has booked through Zocdoc and has seen that doctor," said Kumler. "Because we ask for feedback after every single appointment, we generate a higher volume of reviews. This means not just extremely happy or unhappy outliers are proactively coming to Zocdoc to leave reviews; it's a more representative sampling."

On the flip side, if one of your departments gains negative reviews, patients might be hesitant to schedule an appointment with those doctors. If you're not confident that your hospital will receive largely positive reviews, you may want to hold off on signing up for an online scheduling service and consider some other hospital management tips.

Does Your Specialty Bring in False Alarms?

General practitioners may not have this problem, but for specialized services like gastroenterology or endocrinology, a unique issue could arise from the patients you attract. Because these sites don't require a phone conversation, it's entirely possible for someone to book an appointment with a specialized professional who won't necessarily be able to help that person. Consider whether or not your departments are likely to deal with this issue. It's possible that even if one of your departments could have this problem, others won't, and you could still consider listing those other departments.

"Some of our health system partners make a strategic decision to make the leap all at once," Kumler explained. "Other partnerships have launched with a selection of providers." If you're on the fence about registering for one of these sites, you can always start by listing only one department and, depending on the results, decide whether or not more departments within your hospital would benefit from the site as well.

Can You Afford It?

Subscriptions to these websites don't necessarily come cheap: Zocdoc is reported to cost approximately $300 per month for each listing, and while smaller sites might not be as pricey, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that's free.2 If your listing on one of these sites is successful in bringing in more patients, then it's likely you can easily brush off that monthly charge -- but it's a gamble. There's no guarantee that your listing will bring in any more patients or that you won't have a disgruntled patient leave a negative review.

What Are the Alternatives?

While healthcare is still focused on providing top-quality care to patients, for better or for worse, healthcare organizations are becoming more and more business-focused each day. Patients no longer choose a clinician based on proximity alone. Now, they are motivated by cost, clinician popularity, ease of scheduling and more.3 Simply put, healthcare providers can no longer afford not to put at least some effort into marketing. If you decide against using one of these services, you'll still need to use some form of advertising to keep patients coming to your hospital.

Sarah Sutherland is a staff writer for ADVANCE. Contact: ssutherland@advanceweb.com

References

  1. Konrad, A. Zocdoc's refocus on hospitals pushed it to a total brand facelift, from new logo to CEO. Forbes. 2016.
  2. Johnson, L. How to determine if the cost of ZocDoc is worthwhile for your practice. Foster Web Marketing.
  3.  Beck, M. How to shop around and save on health care. The Wall Street Journal. 2016.

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