ROI of Online Appointment Scheduling

My last post about telemedicine got me thinking about other direct-to-consumer health technology tools and services. This post is about online appointment scheduling.

I consider both to be tools for patient engagement. Both are being offered as features by several EHR vendors and also offered by dedicated non-EHR vendors. Both have potential for existing patients as well as for finding new patients.

With virtual visits, some vendors and technologies combine scheduling of online appointments with the actual video appointment, so the tie between telemedicine and online scheduling is pretty tight. There are likely other similarities between virtual visits and online appointment scheduling that I’m missing.

The ROI from from online scheduling is either from efficiencies you gain or from new revenue you generate. I suppose there is a softer ROI around the perception of a tech-savvy practice being a differentiator from one that doesn’t have online scheduling, but that’s hard to quantify.

It’s really efficiencies or new revenue that have to get factored into whether it is worth $250 per month (plus any integration fees) or whatever is being charged by the vendor that is providing the technology for online appointment booking.

A practice or system benefits from online scheduling in these ways:

  1. Reduced scheduling burden for the office staff. Just like an ATM machine at a bank.
  2. Expanding the hours of the office. It’s often hard for people, especially those in households with two working adults, to set appointments during the 9-5 schedule of most offices. Online scheduling opens up 24-hour service, making it more convenient for patients and keeping the office "open" beyond when the office staff goes home.
  3. Finding new patients and generating new practice revenue. This is more a benefit of third-party vendors like ZocDoc that spend lots of money on SEO and try to drive Internet browsers to ZocDoc provider slots.
  4. Potential add-on services. Online scheduling systems can add additional value beyond scheduling slots. One example is the ability to intelligently collect information about the visit that can then be used during the visit, like a smarter intake form. Another example is collecting insurance information and doing pre-authorizations. One more example is finding a way to fill last-minute slots. I’ve seen some creative approaches to this where you can be notified via SMS or email if appointments open up that are sooner than the one you booked. Some services that charge by the appointment filled (rather than by a flat monthly fee) charge more for filling appointments in that are in the next 24 or 48 hours. Since online scheduling really serves as an entry point into the system and for an appointment, I imagine there are a multitude of other ways that you can add value to an appointment scheduling service, but I think you need a critical mass of adoption before most of these make sense.

I wonder about the real value from #1 and #2 above because ultimately that’s the main value you get from an EHR vendor provided solution or a white-labeled scheduling service that doesn’t heavily market to new patients (one that sits on your existing PM system as a simple extension). Appointment scheduling within an existing PHR portal, provided by an EHR, is not going to generate new patients and revenue. There is potential for add-on value, but I think the core of it today is pure scheduling for existing patients. 

I was asked recently if there’s a ROI on this type of service alone. Not marketing and promoting your practice and schedule through a company like ZocDoc, but just enabling appointment scheduling for existing patients. I’m unclear on the answer, but my hunch tells me that there is a not a lot gained with this type of service when it comes to efficiency.

Maybe it depends on the demographics of the practice if younger and more tech savvy means more usage and more efficiency. If online scheduling is bundled (meaning free), then it makes sense, too. If it’s cheap, then yes again. But it seems unlikely to be worth the time and effort to integrate with a PM system if there is any significant upfront cost. APIs, like the ones from athenahealth and others, should make this easier, cheaper, and more easily repeatable.

Until it is easier and cheaper, does an appointment scheduling system have to generate new revenue (in the form of new patients) to justify spending any money for it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travis Good, MD/MBA, is co-founder of Catalyze. More about me.

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