Communications between many practices and their patients in this digital age need improving. Be a smart talker with patients.  Jane Braithwaite (right) says it is important for all of us to learn about the options now available and to take a view on which system might best suit our practice and our patients.

Communication with patients is key to all medical practices and there is an abundance of technology available to assist.NZIn a previous article about how to get more patients (‘Be more attractive’), we considered ways to use technology to communicate from a marketing perspective.This month, I discuss how we communicate with our existing patients to increase loyalty and improve their level of satisfaction with our service.Before we think about technologies to improve communication, we need to start by focusing on what our patients want, then we can have a sensible discussion about the right technology to fulfil those needs.

Let’s start by asking ‘What do patients want?’

We know what patients want when they visit their doctor. They want good eye contact, undivided attention and time to have a full discussion about their concerns and worries.

Patients also demand privacy and to be treated with respect. In the private medical world, these face-to-face interactions are critical, but we need to think carefully about the other aspects of the service we provide.

How does a patient want to book an appointment?

Is phoning the medical secretary the best option for them? If a patient has read an article in the press, how can they check out their concerns with their doctor?

Arranging follow-up treatment, getting a repeat prescription and dealing with the demands of the insurance companies are aspects that patients consider part of the service you provide as a doctor, so your team’s performance in these matters affects your reputation.

As a doctor, your reputation will be built on the overall service you provide and not just the treatment you give.

In their personal lives, our patients are using apps to do their banking, email to ask questions of their children’s school-teachers and online booking systems to schedule yoga classes.

In business, conference calls and Skype are used daily to communicate and avoid travel. It follows that these same people want and expect to have these options when communicating with their doctor as a patient.

What do doctors want?

Doctors want to maximise the time they have available to attend to patients. Most doctors do not want to spend time booking appointments, dealing with random questions and the ongoing demands of insurance companies.

These tasks are delegated to the medical secretary, who is a key member of the team and is building a good reputation with patients by delivering the services the practice’s patients need.

We also want to run our practices on a cost-effective basis. To do this, we need to ensure that practices are resourced well, but we need to take care that the resources are employed wisely.

Most practices still consider the phone to be the key method of patients communicating with them.

But handling large volumes of calls is difficult and some practices regularly have a voicemail message stating that the phones are so busy that patients should leave a message which will be replied to by the end of the day.

Many practice emails also return an automatic ‘out of office’ message to patients’ emails asking them to call, as the email may not be answered promptly. So the problem is exacerbated.

Research shows that most patients aged 50 and above prefer to use the phone to call their doctor, but younger patients would prefer to use email or book online. We should aim to meet both demands and at the same time reduce the administrative burden on our teams.

The benefits of using digital communications to communicate can be summarised as:

➀ To deliver the high-quality service our patients demand;
➁ To enable us to achieve number 1 in a cost-effective manner.

So we start by deciding which aspects of our service need to be improved and then consider how to achieve this.

Day-to-day communications

Many patients prefer email communications to phone and we should embrace this.

Email is convenient to patients, as they can write a quick note while on the Tube or in the evening when they have spare time. It is also more private than making a phone call.

Managing emails is much easier and cost-effective than managing phone calls, which are real time and intrusive. We should stop seeing emails as annoying and embrace this communication method. Written communications also have the benefit of providing a documented trail of the conversation.

So, I would advise you to cancel the ‘out of office’ encouraging patients to call you and replace it with one stating that a response will be provided within a certain time-frame so that expectations are set.

Then develop an email strategy with your team. Perhaps agree a process with your medical secretary so that all emails are responded to within four hours to ensure a timely response and avoid a follow-up call.

Online appointment booking

Tips on communicationMany patients are familiar with using online booking systems. For example, The Mind Body Connect app is used by 35m active consumers in 130 countries to book wellness services from fitness classes, beauty treatments to physiotherapy. Users can book an appointment, which is then automatically updated into their online calendar with address details and other information.

It is only natural that these same patients will expect this technology from their doctors in the very near future.

Most practice management systems offer an online booking system, and Doctify is continuing to develop this as a key benefit of its system.

You can, of course, develop your own facility on your website, but it is worth considering the pros and cons of this approach, especially the costs involved.

Dealing with ad-hoc questions

Between appointments, many patients ask question relating to their symptoms, medication and treatment plans. These can be time-consuming and often very repetitive for doctors to answer.

If you have embraced email, you have already made this more manageable and these queries can be answered in a standardised manner.

Patient guides can be prepared to answer the more frequently asked questions relating to medication and treatment plans.

These can be emailed out to patients to answer their question more fully. These same guides could also be used as blog articles or factsheets on your website.

Patient portals

There is much discussion about patient-centric care: patients taking more control over their own health information. Patient portals are a great way to enable this and there are various systems available.

It is important for all of us to learn about the options available and to take a view on which system might suit our practice and our patients best.

Jane Braithwaite is Managing Director at Designated Medical and regularly contributes to the Independent Practitioner Today publication.

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