IMPROVE THE PATIENT EXPERIENCE | THROUGH IMPROVED PATIENT COMMUNICATIONS
Download White Paper PDF
In our high-tech, hurried, virtual world, effectively communicating with patients is more challenging than ever. As healthcare professionals, you’re strapped for time. With the demands of your time, you don’t always know your patients as well as you would have three decades ago. You’re competing with the overload of health information patients receive online. And you’re likely doing all of the above while simultaneously trying to enter their information into an electronic health record.
But effective patient communication is also more important than ever. Educated healthcare consumers are learning to advocate for their care, and lack of communication can mean the difference between them choosing other providers or remaining loyal patients. Effective communication can help patients get well faster and make more informed decisions. According to DoctorsDigest.net, successful patient communication means patients do a better job of adhering to their doctor’s orders and achieve the best possible health outcomes.
And as accountable care models move toward legislation, successful patient outcomes will ultimately affect reimbursements. The results of healthcare reform also mean many providers have even less time to spend with patients; yet the same legislation encourages patient participation in their care and emphasizes patient-centered care.
Better communication can also end up saving your practice precious time and ultimately money, increasing the speed and efficiency of your revenue cycle.
From the way you answer the phone to your practice website; from TV commercials to exterior signage; dozens—if not hundreds—of media and methods to communicate with your patients present themselves every day. But your printed, external patient communication vehicles offer extensive opportunities to brand your practice, enhance your patients’ health and maintain your relationships with them. This paper will explore five key opportunities in the patient communications cycle and ways to maximize their effectiveness. These opportunities include new patient communication; diagnostic and treatment communication; financial communication; educational and preventative communication; and patient acquisition communication.
Stage 1: New Patient Communication
Regardless of how or why they’ve walked through your door, your new patients provide the chance to establish connections that can last a lifetime. Now is the time to put your best foot forward and ensure your patient’s first impression of your practice is a good one.
New-patient forms provide one of your first chances to show your patients your practice is professional and committed to quality care. One big mistake practices make is photocopying forms. Photocopying reduces your professional image. Plus, having forms professionally printed can cost up to 50 percent less than photocopying or printing on a laser printer.
In addition to all the necessary HIPAA, insurance and health history forms, your new patient packets should welcome patients to your practice family.
When patients take their time filling out forms, they’re more likely to do so comprehensively—which reduces their stress, improves their experience with your practice
and ultimately helps you provide better care.
Some materials to consider including are:
A practice overview brochure | Maps/directions to your office | Healthcare provider biographies | Financial policies | Frequently asked questions | Health information specific to your specialty
You may want to consider opening your office half an hour earlier than usual one day a week and scheduling new patients for that time slot, to allow them time to complete paperwork without cutting into appointment time.
Another option is to make patient registration packets available before the patient visit. This gives them the option of completing them in advance to save time and
stress. If the appointment is scheduled more than two weeks out, mail new patient packets to your patients to fill out in the comfort of their home before an appointment.
Pediatric Endocrine Associates in Atlanta, Georgia, has POS create and assemble new patient packets to streamline the process.
“Before POS, we had the contents of our new-patient packets printed separately,” says practice administrator Mark Spangler. “We had to assemble the packets, put them in envelopes and mail them... Now we save four or five hours per week in labor, which means a reduction in costs and an increase in efficiency.”
Many healthcare providers also are learning the value of investing a few minutes of time prior to a patient’s first visit to make an introductory phone call. This helps practices learn more about the reason for the visit and maximizes the efficiency of the physician’s time with the patient.
DURING THE FIRST VISIT
According to the 2010 Press Ganey Medical Practice Pulse Report, patients surveyed about their entire care experience ranked their satisfaction with office visits lowest. “Items such as speed of registration, wait times and comfort of waiting areas most affect this score,” the report says. So first visits offer practices many opportunities to improve overall patient satisfaction.
When your new patient arrives, he or she will surely be impressed by the comfort of your reception area—especially if you offer water and coffee, toys and books for children and digital screens displaying health information videos. If your variety of reading materials includes brochures about your practice and a health library of brochures on topics relevant to your practice, they’ll be even more comfortable with the services yet to be received.
Even though they’ve already been “sold” on your practice, (they’re there, aren’t they?), professionally written, designed and printed practice brochures reinforce their choice. Focus on patient benefits and the human side of your practice, no matter how high-tech your services might be. Make sure your logo, address, phone number and website are easy to see on several panels.
Brochures containing useful information relevant to your specialty, branded with your logo, also help assure new patients that they’re in the right place for their care. POS can help create pieces that will make your practice shine. (See more about brochures in the next section of this paper.)
As new patients leave, make sure your staff sends them off with logoed appointment cards, business cards, magnets or other promotional items that reinforce your practice’s brand and location. Keeping your brand in front of new patients is the first step to keeping your practice top-of mind for the long run and enhances the opportunity for referrals.
AFTER THE FIRST VISIT
When was the last time you received a handwritten thank-you note? Imagine if you got one from your new doctor. With pre-printed thank-you cards, you only need to write a quick sentence or two and sign the card for a powerful communication tool. It might take a few minutes from your busy schedule, but it’s a long-term investment in patient retention.
Surveying new patients also helps create loyalty. Asking patients for their feedback immediately makes them feel more important. Your attention to their satisfaction lets them know you’re striving to improve their experience and want them to continue to choose your practice. And soon, surveys won’t be optional. According to Press Ganey, “In the not-so-distant future, to receive full reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (and likely commercial payers), individual physicians will need to have a formal, valid method for collecting patient feedback.”
You don’t need to create a time-intensive survey. Something as simple as a five-question survey can accurately assess perceptions, according to The Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Mail a postage paid survey postcard with your thank-you note to gain higher return rates for your survey.
Some questions you may want to ask on your patient satisfaction survey include:
- How did you hear about our practice?
- Were you greeted in a warm and friendly manner when you arrived?
- Were you satisfied with the length of time it took to obtain your appointment?
- Were you satisfied with the length of waiting time in our office?
- Were you able to see the healthcare provider of your choice?
- Did your visit meet your expectations? If not, why not?
- How would you like us to contact you regarding future appointments? (Text message, e-mail, phone, other)
Stage 2: Diagnostic and Treatment Communication
Effectively communicating about necessary care is one opportunity no practice can afford to miss. As navigating one’s way through today’s healthcare system becomes more and more complicated, simplifying messages for patients becomes increasingly important. And, simply put, patients who understand their own health fare better than those who don’t.
Of course, clear, unhurried conversations with your patients are key to ensuring they understand their diagnosis and treatment plans. But using clear, simple brochures or fliers during consultation and sending patients home with printed materials is one of the best ways to make sure they end up with trustworthy health information.
Simple, uncomplicated and personalized handouts have been shown to improve patient outcomes. They can also help you communicate important information required by law, or by accrediting agencies, says Karri Johns, business manager for St. Louis Eye Surgery & Laser Center in Missouri. As an ambulatory surgery center specializing in ophthalmology, Johns says they distribute a brochure titled, “Your Guide to Same Day Surgery.”
In addition to legal issues, the brochure covers information that’s important to both the practice and the patient, Johns says. “It is best when patients know what to expect in advance and that they have access to the rights under the law,” she says. “Many of the things (such as advance directives, durable powers of attorney, medications and photo identification) are those that the patients simply don’t think of on the day of their procedure.”
The brochures also help patients with questions that might arise after their procedures. “They’re nice to reference post-surgically for billing contact numbers to our facility as well as the anesthesia provider,” Johns says.
Many pharmaceutical companies offer diagnosis-specific literature for practices to distribute to patients—but beware of the urge to simply print and distribute materials that may only tell half of the story. While pharmaceuticals are often one treatment option for many common conditions, they’re usually only part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Creating your own handouts—or letting POS help you with templates that can be customized for your practice—lets you send patients home with all the information they need in one piece. To combat “Internet overload,” your handouts can also include a list of practice-approved websites your patients can visit for more reliable information.
Like everything representing your practice, all of your diagnostic and treatment communications pieces, such as presentation folders, prescription pads, general forms and referral pads, should bear your logo and be easily recognizable.
Stage 3: Financial Communication
When it comes to the patient communication cycle, your chance to find the most measurable return on investment may come from financial communications. When you more clearly communicate patients’ responsibilities, they’re more likely to meet them.
DURING THE VISIT
Consider making a flier that clearly explains your practice’s financial policies, including the difference between insurance-paid portions and the patient’s responsibilities. If you mail new patient packets, send along your financial policy as well. Or, give them to new patients at their first visit. Like anything else that represents your practice, make sure this piece is branded and consistent with your other communications.
While clear and strategically developed superbills may benefit your staff more than your patients, patients still see them—and read them. Don’t underestimate what patients may notice while carrying their superbill from the exam room to check-out. These should be logoed, and the “Balance Due” section should be screened or shaded to call attention to it.
All of your in-office forms should integrate your logo, colors and general look. Having them professionally printed ensures consistency and reassures your patients that you run a well-organized, polished organization. It also saves you money in photocopying costs.
AFTER THE VISIT
Patient statements represent a crucial part of the communications cycle. They also represent an opportunity to reinforce your brand, accelerate your revenue cycle, improve your patient relationships and enhance your patients’ experience with your practice.
That might seem like a lot for a simple sheet of paper to accomplish, but it’s easy to do with the right kinds of statements.
Collecting the patient-owed portion is arguably the most challenging part of your revenue cycle. When managing the family budget, your patient may be inclined to first pay bills with the harshest penalties for delay. Rising healthcare and insurance costs have added strain to many families, especially those already struggling in the current economy.
A 2007 Health Tracking Household Survey by the Center for Studying Health System Change showed that 20.9 percent of all people under 65 are in families that have trouble paying medical bills, and the level of difficulty increases proportionally to levels of out-of-pocket spending. Without the looming threats of compounding interest or withholding service, medical bills for services that can’t be undone may fall to the bottom of your patient’s priority list.
Increased returns on patient-owed accounts receivable begin with patient-friendly statements. The POS-I-BILL® Statement Processing solution from POS offers statements that simplify processes, improve patient satisfaction and increase collections.
Statements may be the one thing from your practice that your patients see most frequently. But all too often, their true potential is overlooked. Particularly complicated statements can not only delay payment, but also damage the relationship you have with your patients. A survey published by Consumer Reports in January 2010 listed “incomprehensible bills” as fifth among daily things that annoy Americans most.
Consider these questions:
- Is your statement clear and easy for the patient to understand—or does it inevitably lead to patient questions and phone calls?
- Is the amount due clearly highlighted, and is it clear that this is the patient’s responsibility?
- Is there a due date?
- Is it easy for the patient to pay in the method most convenient for him/her, such as online or with a credit card?
- Are your logo, colors and key contact information prominent? Does your statement reflect your brand?
- Do you use the back of your statement or inserts to share important practice information, news and policies?
If you answered “no” to several of these questions, it may be time to examine how you can improve your financial communications.
POS-I-BILL can work in conjunction with almost every practice management system on the market today, so incorporating patient-friendly statements into your current system is easy and smooth. And, your statement can look exactly how you want it to look versus how your software dictates it should look.
Practices that have switched to POS-I-BILL Statement Processing see measurable improvements with patient-friendly statements.
“By changing the format of the statement, we dramatically reduced the number of billing-question phone calls to our office,” says Michelle Spellman of The Vision Center in Muscatine, Iowa. “I would estimate that number was reduced by 75 percent.”
Stage 4: Educational and Preventative Communication
As healthcare reform has moved to the forefront of discourse in America, the emphasis on health education and preventative healthcare has become a national, mainstream issue. We all know that effective wellness communication is crucial, but it isn’t always easy to accomplish. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy:
“Two decades of research indicate that today’s health information is presented in a way that isn’t usable by most Americans. Nearly nine out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our healthcare facilities, retail outlets, media and communities. Without clear
information and an understanding of prevention and self-management of conditions, people are more likely to skip necessary medical tests. They also end up in the emergency room more often, and they have a hard time managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.”
Focusing on health education and prevention—while seemingly counter-intuitive to practices that would like to see more visits by patients—is ultimately good for your practice. Wellness visits and regular check-ups can keep your waiting room full, and healthier patients are inevitably more satisfied, and more likely to refer your services.
Newsletters are easy and effective ways to educate, encourage wellness and remain top-of-mind with your patients. When you offer easy-to-understand, reliable information, you reinforce your practice as a trusted health resource. You invite patients into your “practice family” and make them feel a part of what’s going on. And, you encourage them to make appointments.
If you lack the time, resources or expertise to create a professional-looking patient newsletter, POS offers templates, custom design services, full-color printing and a stock library of art and articles. Choose those that work for your practice, add a few custom-written pieces—highlighting new locations or services, office news and staff spotlights, for example—and POS will take the stress out of producing and mailing a professionally produced resource for your patients. Mail them along with statements or recalls, and you don’t even have to worry about additional postage costs.
Newsletters also work as effective communication pieces for patient acquisition. Read more about practices who’ve created successful referral programs based on quarterly newsletters in the next section.
Educating your patients about health issues and what’s new at your practice isn’t a one-time venture. In addition to newsletters, direct mail postcards are cost-effective ways to frequently touch your patients’ lives.
Recall cards, appointment cards, announcements of new services or locations—all can be professionally designed, branded and targeted to the right segments of your patient database, with help from POS.
Healthcare awareness months and weeks provide perfect opportunities to educate your patients; promote certain screenings and diagnostic procedures; run specials on services or procedures; or host special events in conjunction with them.
Add some creativity to your health information communication pieces and you’ll see benefits for both your patients and your practice. At The Breast Center in Marietta, Georgia, they distributed shower hangers in October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“They’re printed on waterproof paper, and they include instructions on how to do a self breast exam as well as a place to punch out each month, so you can track when you did it,” says practice administrator Mitzi Edge.
Practice staff handed out the hangers in the office as well as at health fairs and events. “Patients thought they were very cool. They loved them,” Edge says. “They also make patients more likely to do their self breast exams, and give them information on how to get in touch with us at their fingertips.”
Stage 5: Patient Acquisition
According to a POS online survey, attracting new patients is one of the most important communication goals, with 21.4 percent of those surveyed citing it as their biggest office challenge.
When it comes to new patient acquisition, your marketing program might employ everything from mass media—TV spots, radio, billboards, newspaper ads—to new media like Facebook and ads on local websites.
But in terms of print communication, a consistent, targeted marketing effort can be one of the most cost-effective ways to keep new patients coming in the door.
Keeping your waiting room full requires actively seeking new patients with ongoing efforts. This isn’t a “one-and-done” marketing program. Patient acquisition requires ongoing efforts across multiple media outlets to maximize your reach and frequency—hitting as many of your targets as possible, as many times as possible.
But you don’t necessarily need mass media to achieve reach and frequency goals. By strategically integrating your marketing efforts, you can touch your prospects multiple times with minimal investment. The key is remaining consistent.
Every piece you mail or hand out in your office should have:
- Your logo
- Your tagline, if you have one
- The same look and feel, in terms of fonts and colors
- The same offer, if you’re running a promotion
POS clients who have formulated programs that combine referrals with direct mail have seen dramatic success in reaching their patient acquisition goals.
Direct mail is as powerful and productive as ever. According to research from the U.S. Post Office, Americans still look forward to coming home and reading their mail every day. One study found that consumers count on mail to help them manage their households, “including scheduling home maintenance, arranging children’s activities and remembering healthcare appointments.”
Research shows 79 percent of all households read or scan the direct mail they receive. Other studies demonstrate that more than three-quarters of Internet users say direct mail has influenced them to buy something online. And the Direct Marketing Association calculates that direct mail returns an impressive $12.53 for every dollar invested in it.
At Dermatology Associates of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida, wanted to attract new patients by promoting that they offer the only certified Mohs surgery in the area. Since this is a specific type of skin cancer treatment, Dermatology Associates worked with POS to target area residents aged 65 and older.
Before the end of the two-month campaign, the practice had booked more than 40 new patients. With each patient valued between $1,000 and $3,000 in revenue, Dermatology Associates estimates at least a 226 percent return on their direct mail investment.
The success of your new-patient direct mail program depends largely on the quality of your mailing list. POS can help you target the right prospects based on location, age, income, presence of children and a variety of other factors.
Your offer and the design of your piece are crucial as well. POS can custom-design postcards for any practice, or you can choose from a huge variety of stock designs to suit your needs. Make sure your copy focuses on patient benefits and includes short, clear headlines and calls to action. Your design should be bold, colorful and uncluttered.
Word-of-mouth is by far the most effective marketing technique ever known—and it can also be the most difficult to control. A referral program simply formalizes what your satisfied patients do anyway—tell a friend about your services—and rewards them for doing so.
Here’s where your patient newsletter can serve double duty. The Family Smilecare Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, knows that existing patients are their most valuable asset. Dr. Maikon uses direct-mail newsletters to generate referrals for her practice.
After building a new office and adding a partner, she wanted to increase her new-patient volume from 12 to 20 a month, so she combined a referral program with a newsletter and postcards for a comprehensive new-patient marketing program.
Maikon used POS referral cards and a quarterly newsletter to generate referrals from existing patients, and used a targeted mailing list for two postcards mailed to prospects. After two years, Family Smilecare averages 50-60 new patients a month—with one month resulting in a whopping 140 new patients.
“When I set the goal of 20 new patients per month, I thought it was an ambitious one,” says Maikon. “Now that we’re up to 50 or 60 new patients a month, I realize how important the right marketing approach is for my practice. Referrals generate 80 percent of my new patients. The referral program combined with the quarterly newsletter has helped me far exceed my expectations.”
The communications cycle between practice and patient is ongoing, dynamic and ever-changing. Throughout every stage of the provider-patient relationship, opportunities abound to effectively communicate to achieve your desired goals. Your POS representative can help you acquire and retain patients, grow your practice and see maximum returns on your communications investments.