It has been almost 15 years since my business partner and I opened our own physical therapy clinic. Since then, we have expanded to three locations, treated thousands of patients, and successfully navigated wild changes on the payor side. Oh, and a little thing called “the Internet” transformed how we communicate, think, and do business.
Despite all of this rapid change, one thing has remained the same: happy patients keep us in business.
This basic fact about our line of work has been lost on many therapists. Healthcare is the biggest industry to completely disregard the end user. We focus on wooing the third-party payor, when the patient is the one who truly shapes our future. They can advocate for us to insurance companies, legislators, and other patients. Yet customer service is usually an afterthought in our patient interactions.
This must change. We have to provide patients with a premium experience throughout their treatment life cycle.
So, what is the new paradigm for patient engagement? In this article, I propose a new way of looking at critical, and often overlooked, opportunities to improve patient experience. I will also examine practice-management technology as an important tool to help us seize these opportunities, if used correctly.
Re-Claiming Customer Service
Your first step toward a positive customer service experience is to openly and honestly reflect on your patient’s total experience at your clinic. This means focusing on understanding why a patient called you, getting that patient in the door, and then using good practice-management data to effectively engage with that individual throughout treatment. This sounds intuitive, but most clinics miss the critical customer service touch points in this life cycle: when they call to schedule, when they finish a session with the therapist, and when they finish therapy.
People skills are a big part of successfully seizing these moments, but they only go so far. You must have immediate access to information relevant to the patient to make the most of each customer service opportunity. This is where technology comes in. The right practice-management software makes a huge difference in meaningfully putting the focus on patient experience. There are a lot of options out there, but one element separates the winners from the rest: true, bidirectional clinical and financial data integration.
Will the Real “Integrated System” Please Stand Up?
The most important part of picking the right practice-management software is knowing how it stores your patient’s clinical and financial data. Clinical and financial integration is at the heart of valuable practice-management software.
Let’s be really specific when we use the word “integrated.”
The term “integrated” can be ambiguous in instances where it refers to software that builds a one-way bridge to another, separate, piece of software. Imagine a person standing on one side of a river, shouting directions through a megaphone toward a colleague standing on the other side. Without a megaphone of their own, let alone a two-way bridge, the recipient can’t communicate anything back. Information flows in one direction only.
This can be the case for practice-management software referred to as “integrated,” but which has a one-way connection between separate databases. For these types of systems it can be difficult for clinical data to easily combine with financial data and paint a full picture of the patient or analyze practice trends.
In this article, the term “integrated” refers to an all-in-one system that houses clinical and financial information in one database. Effective practice-management software should rely on one, and only one, database to efficiently manage everything. Unless clinical and financial information can easily be sent in both directions, practice performance and patient-management information may not easily be at your fingertips, let alone at your front desk staff’s when they perform critical first touches. Reporting may become burdensome, and simple conversations about a patient’s cost sharing responsibilities may take hours of manual data entry preparation.
If you want to manage your practice efficiently and have the right data to seize customer service opportunities, clinical and financial information has to be stored in one place. Otherwise, it may not be as accessible as you need it.
Overlooked Customer Service Opportunity #1: At the Front Desk
I spend a lot of time at my clinics’ front desks. While therapy staff is delivering clinical care, I study and refine how we interact with patients before they step into the treatment room.
I invest my time in this part of the patient life cycle because it so heavily influences the rest of their experience at my clinics. And, in my opinion, it is the most neglected. If you ask a PT about the most important touch point for a new patient, they may say it is when they are personally in front of them for the first time. They could not be more wrong.
Delivering care that puts the focus on the end user begins when they call your clinic to schedule the first appointment. This moment sets the tone for the relationship and tells the patient how well you will take care of them. If you nail this customer service opportunity, everything else falls into place.
When my business partner and I finally began investing in our front desk’s connections with patients prior to their evaluation, our no-show and cancellation rates plummeted. We did this successfully with the right practice-management software that gave us all the data we needed for successful interactions. Our clinic chose an integrated practice-management software product with revenue cycle services. Whatever you use, it should provide automated alerts for new referrals that will help you stay on top of each referral until it gets scheduled.
In the past, when a new customer called the office, my front office double entered data into a schedule and a separate notes section (and then, ultimately, a separate billing software). Things would get lost in translation. Tasks were falling through the cracks.
Now, all patient information is stored in one system, so I know exactly when they called, what they want, and how they want it. Then, when they get into the clinic, my therapy staff has full context for why the patient is there and can knock it out of the park. Patients don’t have to retell their story to multiple people.
Another important part of this customer service opportunity is when the conversation turns to money. At the first point of contact, my front desk staff tells new patients that they will get financial benefits information to them 24 to 48 hours before their visit. Your practice-management software should help you track this promise and make sure you deliver on it. It should support you to easily collect copayments, and determine whether a patient’s bene?ts have been veri?ed and if they have met their deductible.
And by the way, this all got a lot easier when we stopped asking our front desk associate to do two jobs. Instead, we separated the front desk responsibilities, which are inherently about customer service and copay collection, from new patient sales, which is about convincing interested patients to schedule.
Overlooked Customer Service Opportunity #2: In the Treatment Room
Your practice-management software should empower your therapy staff to be in the center of their patients’ care, doing whatever it takes to make them successful in therapy. In order to play that role, the therapist has to have access to all patient information, stored in one place, front and center, because there is not just one thing that contributes to a successful therapy experience.
They need access to front desk notes, to learn anything special about why the patient is coming in that was received on the phone. They need to know when reauthorizations are due, the scope of a patient’s benefits, their history in therapy, and the scheduling needs that will keep the patient in treatment.
I have been beating on PTs for years that scheduling is a critical customer service opportunity and their responsibility. Effective scheduling is an extension of selling the plan of care to the patient. This means establishing goals and coaching the patient on their progress. Your practice-management software should complement your therapists’ scheduling efforts by providing automated appointment reminders to keep patients in therapy and alerts for patients who become inactive.
Focusing on customer service in the treatment room, after the hands-on work is done, improves outcomes and your relationships with referral sources and payors. Compared to what we have expected from therapists in the past, this is out of the box. But it will make a huge difference in creating a positive customer experience.
Overlooked Customer Service Opportunity #3: As They Are Walking Out the Door
I worry about patients when they are discharged. Historically, this was the moment that a therapist shook the patient’s hand, reveled in any goals met, and called it a day.
This is a frequently missed core customer service opportunity! After discharge, your practice-management software should deliver insight into how things went. This information is gold. For example, it should measure patient satisfaction so you can apply the lessons learned to your marketing strategy. It should also measure revenue trends, to help you decide which type of patients, physicians, and payors deserve your marketing focus.
Practice-management data about patients who did not pick you or dropped out of therapy is equally valuable. Even more, the system should analyze which therapists are driving the highest patient retention. I want to know every reason why a patient discontinued therapy, so that I can analyze the key drivers behind dropout and success.
This data is also valuable for so many other practice decisions. You must analyze the cases that were lower in average visits, the average payment and revenue per visit, and whether or not the patients were meeting their goals. This information holds insight that should drive the way you manage your practice.
In 10 years, I want to see a profession that values the end user above any other customer. Above the insurance company. Above the referring physician. Physical therapy practice management has to be driven by an unrelenting focus on patient experience. Attaining this vision is, I believe, entirely possible, but will require a shift in thinking that is summed nicely by Charles Darwin, who wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” RM
Jerry Durham, PT, is co-founder and principal of San Francisco Sport and Spine Physical Therapy. The practice opened in 2001 and has three locations in the city of San Francisco. Durham earned a master’s degree in physical therapy from Chapman University in 1993. He is an active member of the APTA and the California Physical Therapy Association. For more information, contact [email protected]