How do you get the best out of online booking systems?

Doug Hendrie

13/11/2018 1:16:26 PM

RACGP eHealth experts say the careful management of online appointment systems is essential.

Online appointment systems have real benefits – but also complications to manage.
Online appointment systems have real benefits – but also complications to manage.

People in 2018 are accustomed to doing almost everything online, from buying a plane ticket to signing up to parent–teacher interviews.
Unsurprisingly, that means many patients expect to be able to book their GP appointments online.
But these increasingly popular appointment-booking systems must be well managed to ensure the best results for patients and doctors, say two RACGP eHealth experts.
Dr Rob Hosking, Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Practice Technology and Management (REC–PTM), told newsGP that online appointments have genuine benefits – but also challenges to overcome.
‘The main issue is triage. Receptionists are usually pretty good at figuring out what patients might be coming in for, so they might book a longer appointment [for complex matters],’ he said.
‘But if you don’t know that, patients turn up for a standard appointment and it can be a problem.’
Dr Hosking believes the major benefit of shifting to online appointments is the ability to provide patients the convenience of booking at any time.
‘If a patient is feeling crook in the middle of the night, or they have a sick child, they can make an appointment,’ he said. ‘It gives more flexibility too, rather than to-ing and fro-ing with the receptionist on possible appointments.’
Many practices – like Dr Hosking’s – only allow existing patients to book online to avoid issues regarding triage and possible appointment over-runs. He recommends customising appointment systems so only specific slots can be booked online.
‘You can look at setting up longer appointments for specific conditions if the software lets you, in the hope patients do the right thing. So customising the booking systems can work well,’ he said.
‘On balance, online appointments are a good thing if they’re managed well. Good for the patients and for the practice. It saves receptionists time.
‘We used to get inundated at 8.00 am with phone calls, but now a lot book online.’
Online booking presents another wrinkle for private-billing practices.
‘Patients think longer appointments will cost me more, so they book a short one to try and save money,’ Dr Hosking said.
Dr Nathan Pinskier, immediate past Chair of the REC–PTM, agrees with the need to carefully manage online appointment systems.
‘Well-trained receptionists play a vital role in providing insight into the reason for a particular consultation,’ he told newsGP.
‘Booking into healthcare systems isn’t necessarily the same as booking a hotel, where you purchase a service. This is around an interaction between an individual and a healthcare provider.
‘It can potentially disrupt your whole day if someone selects a single appointment when they needed a double.’
Like Dr Hosking, Dr Pinskier has found targeting within the online system to be essential.
‘It can’t just be for all appointments, all occasions and all people,’ he said.
The RACGP recommends these systems be used for ‘routine, non-urgent appointments only’.
‘Where practices adopt online appointment technology, they should continue to advise patients to phone the practice directly for urgent and non-routine appointments,’ the college’s guide to online appointment technology states.

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