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Your urgent care clinic is humming along. You’re seeing 20, 25, 30 patients per day, things are running pretty smoothly, and you’re pretty happy with the revenue you’re generating. Why change what’s not broken? But then you hear patients talking about a clinic across town offering new services. They love the opportunity to book appointments online with their primary care provider. Maybe it’s time to think about offering online scheduling software, too.

When the rep from that online scheduling app pitched you on their services, it sounded like a good idea. So you call her back. The price is right, and you bite. Implementation is a snap, now you sit back to watch the magic.

But instead of magic, here’s what happens next:

  • You’re struggling to manage walk-ins
  • Patient flow is severely disrupted
  • There aren’t enough appointments to go around

You’ve picked and paid for this new online scheduling app. It’s just not the answer you thought it would be.

Here’s what happens next:

1. Patients get the wrong idea about “appointments.”

Appointment booking apps do just that: book appointments. The problem is your urgent care doesn’t run on appointments. After booking an appointment online, patients, maybe even new patients, start walking through your doors. And they walk in with an expectation. “My appointment is at 10:15.”

Walk-ins dutifully waiting their turn in your lobby overhear the conversation and you’re faced with a dilemma. You can tell this patient they’ll have to wait because, “appointment doesn’t really mean appointment,” or take the patient back at 10:15 to meet his expectation, regardless of how long other patients have been in your waiting room—and create a sense of unfairness which triggers anxiety. Do you sacrifice patient satisfaction of multiple patients for the satisfaction of one?

Whether or not you rebrand these appointments, you’ll have your work cut out to set the right patient expectations about when they’ll be seen. You should have a conversation with all the patients who book online for the next couple of months that sets – or resets – their expectations, accordingly.

Or, you can try to figure out a new method to operate that accommodates scheduled appointments, and do your best to manage specific appointment times against your normal walk-in traffic.

2. You (try to) mitigate the disruption by limiting appointment times.

No matter how you try to reset expectations about what “appointment” means, patients have their own ideas. So you come up with a plan to limit the damage these appointments inflict on your walk-in patient flow. You decide to allow only one to two appointments per hour. That should make it easier to juggle the patient expectations, right?

As a result, this online scheduling app loses its value. By intentionally reducing its usage, it’s a near guarantee that you’re now overpaying for the app with a lower ROI. Instead of an appointment list booked full with patients, you’re offering a limited courtesy to a few customers in order to avoid wait time disruption for your regular walk-in customers. And the reality is, those one or two online appointments per hour still pose a risk of interrupting waiting room order, directly affecting the satisfaction of your patients.

What’s worse, this actually leads to another, likely bigger problem.

3. Patients chew up all the available appointment times.

During busy times, like flu season, those one to two appointments per hour will get reserved pretty quickly. Any additional patients, which you’d normally accommodate as walk-ins anyway, and who happen to look online, will see your schedule booked solid (even though it really only represents a visit or two per hour). It sends them a clear message that you’re super busy and they’ll have to wait a long time to see a doctor. They end up looking for urgent care at a different clinic.

Of course, during these busy seasons, you can choose to bump up the number of available appointment times, but it only amplifies the chaos of managing more scheduled appointments with higher walk-in traffic.

You have two choices:

  • Reduce the number of appointments, but not get your money’s worth from the scheduling tool, AND potentially invite patients to go elsewhere when it looks like your schedule is full.
  • Or increase the number of appointments, but also increase the degree of difficulty in managing more scheduled appointments—and patient expectations—alongside your walk-ins.

There is a third option.

Urgent care clinics operate in a different way than primary care offices and other ambulatory clinics. By design, most of your patients are walk-ins. Instead of a schedule of appointments, you manage a queue. Instead of an online scheduling app, queue management software is a better alternative that helps you manage patient flow no matter where your patients come from.

A queue management solution offers your customers the convenience of online scheduling, based on a real-time patient queue. They basically put themselves in line, and wait for their visit wherever they want. And there’s no need to redefine or educate patients about reserving a space in line. Every patient is in the same queue and no one skips waiting or jumps ahead (unless there’s a really good reason), which reduces any feelings of unfairness or anxiety about the unknown. All this drives patient satisfaction.

And finally, instead of sending patients the inaccurate message that your schedule is too full to see them soon, they’re able to look at the queue with estimated wait times, and reserve a space that works. That’s real convenience that sets a realistic expectation and gives them choices.

Online scheduling apps may be a good idea for some clinics who need to attract new patients or to simply keep up with the competition. You know your clinic best. But for urgent cares, whose business is driven by walk-ins, a queuing platform like Experity Patient Engagement is a better option that not only offers convenience for customers, but allows your staff to manage patient flow and improve patient satisfaction start to finish.

This resource was first published prior to the 2019 merger between DocuTAP and Practice Velocity. The content reflects our legacy brands.

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