Online Appointment Scheduling Becoming a Key Loyalty Driver for Dental Patients

George Suda, Chief Information Officer, Smile Brands Inc.

Before there was OpenTable, we played the waiting game when it came to making dinner reservations. We picked up the phone and hoped there would be someone at the restaurant who could book our table without a lengthy hold time or game of phone tag. The convenience of online reservations suddenly created the expectation that all kinds of appointments could be made without phone contact.

In fact, online scheduling is currently a hot button for patients with 80 percent preferring healthcare providers who offer online booking and 35 percent claiming this as a major factor when selecting new providers. Why? With online scheduling patients are in full control. They can book appointments when and how they prefer. Also, online booking conveniently cuts down the amount of time it takes to book an appointment over the phone - estimated at 8 minutes – down to just one.

Online booking is an important driver of patient preference and it appeals to the patients every provider is eager to attract to their practice. Twenty-six percent of appointments booked online are the same day or the next day, and a large portion of those are emergency appointments. These are critical appointments for any dental practice because of very high patient show rates and treatment acceptance. When a dental provider can care for a patient in an emergency, the loyalty they earn can last a lifetime. Moreover, patients using online booking systems tend to be younger, more affluent and more educated.

  The simplicity of the scheduling tool reduces the amount of time it takes to set appointments internally and enhances our ability to schedule appointments for multiple family members on a single call 

Accenture has predicted that 38% of medical appointments will be booked online by the end of 2019. Dentistry, unfortunately, lags significantly behind medical when it comes to online appointment scheduling. Most legacy dental practice management systems still are not cloud-based making real-time virtual schedule access difficult. Medical system technology adoption, by contrast, has been dictated by the need to integrate with primary payers, which often times are insurance companies. Dental insurance has been a much lesser priority for the payers who have been slow to set technology standards for dental providers.

Most dental practices are forced to rely on 3rd party automated scheduling solutions like ZocDoc or SolutionReach. These solutions provide an excellent front-end user experience but can create serious difficulties for dental offices. Frequently practices are not able to integrate these 3rd party tools with their legacy patient management system. This means that offices have to reserve a block of appointments for online use only making it difficult to fill schedules efficiently.

When Smile Brands looked to source an online appointment setting solution to support the organization’s 400+ affiliated practices, real-time integration was a top priority. Patient appointments are simultaneously scheduled in-office, with our centralized Call Center and online. With no third-party solution available able to integrate with Smile Brands’ Enterprise Patient Management System, we had no choice but to develop our own tool. Smile BrandsIT team created an internal solution that pulls schedule availability from a legacy system and presents it to patients, front office staff or Call Center agents so that all entities booking appointments have the same view of appointment availability. Simply put, appointments booked from any channel are automatically reflected across all booking environments. This system gives patients the ability to access online booking from Smile Brands’ website, digital ads and social media properties and us the ability to book new patients, current patients, and emergency appointments.

Due to the success of this system, we are in the midst of a company-wide rollout. Where available, 10-15 percent of traffic has quickly migrated to online booking despite the very limited promotion of the solution to date.

The patient benefits are obvious; however, the benefits to Smile Brands are significant as well. Online booking frees office staff, allowing them to be more attentive to patients at the time of their visit. It also reduces the volume of calls incoming calls to our call center. The simplicity of the scheduling tool reduces the amount of time it takes to set appointments internally and enhances our ability to schedule appointments for multiple family members on a single call. The system helps us better capture after-hours appointments, especially emergencies. Early testing has shown that the availability of an online booking option increases the effectiveness of our digital advertising and social media presence.

Dentistry needs to continue to evolve the patient experience to keep pace with the evolution of consumer communications and e-commerce. As people become accustomed to conveniences in some aspects of their lives, they will begin to expect that to translate to all parts of their lives. How many of us have opted not to visit a restaurant because they didn’t offer online booking? Sadly, with only 39% of adults getting to the dentist each year, many people are just looking for an excuse not to go. It’s up to us to continue to make visits easier, faster and more affordable – to take away all the excuses. Linking SMS appointment reminders to online scheduling tools makes getting to the dentist that much easier. Couple that with patient account management tools for billing and payments plus 1:1 HIPPA compliant digital communications, and we can start to demonstrate to patients that dental practice operations are modernizing as fast as the care itself. The practice of dentistry is evolving at an unprecedented rate driven by advances in technology like digital scanning, 3-D printing, clear aligners and more. Our goal is to make sure the technology of running the practice keeps pace so that we can offer the most convenient the end-to-end patient experience in the industry.

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