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    Creating and sustaining a welcoming environment for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic was just the start. With the resulting staffing shortages for healthcare organizations, ensuring that patients can easily get an appointment when provider schedules get strained became a tall task.

    As detailed in the 2022 MGMA DataDive Practice Operations data report earlier this year, the difficulty in hiring and retaining key patient-facing and clinical support positions had clear impacts on patient access benchmarks:

    • Appointment availability for new patients — measured as the third-next-available appointment (TNAA) — increased by two days: From 6.1 days in 2020 to 8.1 days in 2021.
    • Time-to-third for established patients increased slightly, ticking up from 4 days in 2020 to 4.43 days in 2021.
    • Wait times in a practice’s waiting area also increased by four minutes year over year, with a median wait time of 16 minutes in 2021.
    • Wait times in the exam room while waiting for a provider increased by two minutes in 2021, reaching a median of nine minutes.

    Patients frequently cite a desire for self-service tools, and an ongoing staffing crisis in healthcare might be the perfect time for medical groups to add or improve their offerings.An Oct. 18, 2022, MGMA Stat poll found that two-thirds (66%) of medical practices added or improved patient self-service tools — such as scheduling, online bill pay and more — in the past year, while 34% had not. The poll had 494 applicable responses.

    The most common forms of patient self-service tools added or improved according to poll respondents were:

    • Online self-scheduling and improved appointment templates
    • Additions of a digital front door and digital registration/intake forms
    • Added functionalities within the patient portal, such as messaging
    • Automatic and pre-payment options online.

    Among respondents to the poll who did not add or improve self-service tools, 59% said they are considering adding or improving existing tools in the next year. The top reasons for those not looking to add new tools in the next year were:

    • Already having a set of tools patients can use
    • Issues integrating tools with existing EHRs or practice management systems
    • Waiting to see revenues improve in the coming months before investing in new tools
    • Provider reluctance.

    Earlier this year, a March 22 MGMA Stat poll found that about one-third of medical practices planned to outsource or automate patient communication functions in the coming six months. Additionally, a May 3 MGMA Stat poll showed that many medical groups had reverted back to a higher share of front desk check-ins despite embracing other options — online, text, phone or kiosk — during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Another recent MGMA article pointed to six specific engagement tools that were likely to gain traction amid the pandemic and staffing challenges:

    1. Digital wallets: Patients can use Apple Pay or Google Pay, for example, at practice payment terminals or via its website or app. Digital wallets offer convenience and security for patients, while eliminating paper and driving cost savings for practices.
    2. Self-scheduling: Patients can submit their personal information online, reducing errors that may occur over the phone. Moreover, self-scheduling provides more privacy for patients when sharing sensitive health information, especially when they schedule appointments in a public place such as their place of work.
    3. Automated appointment reminders: Recurring, automated reminders for patients, via text message, email or phone, can improve patient engagement and satisfaction while also reducing no-shows, which helps protect practice revenue.  
    4. Digital check-in: Many patients find it beneficial to complete clinical information, disclosures, and consent forms online prior to an appointment and check in on their phone before they arrive at the doctor’s office.  
    5. Digital billing: The ability to receive medical bills via text and email provides convenience for patients to access their statements and pay online. It also means that practices don’t have to mail many paper statements, process as many mailed payments, post payments into their practice management system, or make as many phone calls to patients about balances due.
    6. Post-visit payment plans: Being flexible regarding bill payments helps practices develop a better rapport with patients, resulting in improved collections and less bad debt for collection agencies to handle. 

    JOIN MGMA STAT  

    Our ability at MGMA to provide great resources, education and advocacy depends on a strong feedback loop with healthcare leaders. To be part of this effort, sign up for MGMA Stat and make your voice heard in our weekly polls. Sign up by texting “STAT” to 33550 or visit mgma.com/stat. Polls will be sent to your phone via text message.  
     
    Do you have any best practices or success stories to share on this topic? Please let us know by emailing us at connection@mgma.com.   

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