It may seem hard to believe—I know it does to me—but we’re approaching the last quarter of 2019. The summer season goes by fast, probably for obvious reasons, and when autumn arrives, it feels like it sneaked up on us.Of course, for many practices, there’s another reason it feels like a stealth attack by the calendar: the workload can go from one of the slowest times of the year to one of the busiest, seemingly overnight.

This time of year can be crucial for your profitability. With many patients wanting to book services before the end of the calendar year, especially those who’ve met high deductibles, it’s an opportunity to meet patient needs and make more money. Now’s the time to plan how you’ll make the most of this busy time of year, without unnecessary stress.
Here are some of our favorite tips for maximizing the upside of this season—while also staying well and enjoying what this high-productivity time of year.

1) Set a plan and get everyone on the same page

Many of our practice clients seem to have an allergy to staff meetings! We understand the fear of wasted time. But at this crucial time of year, a group huddle can help make sure everyone knows what to expect and, above all, understands why the season is so important to practice health and stability. (This is likely obvious to physicians and practice managers, but it may not be to your staff.)

Patients who know they’ve met their deductibles will be anxious to book care that they’ve put off. That means staff may need to be a little more patient when patients are less so. Patients will also likely be confused about their insurance, so making sure everyone knows the right way to answer their questions is critical (even if the right answer simply means knowing who to transfer their call to).

If anyone on your staff is rusty on your technology capabilities or the billing/scheduling rules they’ll need to explain make sure you encourage them to speak up without feeling ashamed. Review your scripts and manuals, and assess whether your teams are working well together. Make sure everyone gets enough (re)training to feel confident dealing with patients’ questions.

If you use an outside billing service, make sure you engage them in these group meeting/meetings, too. It may be even more important than with in-house billers, since being in a separate physical location can mean different assumptions about how to handle patient questions and even specific billing issues. Remember that patient sensitivity about costs is higher than ever—and they’ll be nervous about what their out-of-pocket will ultimately be for procedures they’re scheduling. (Insurance complexity is also higher than ever, and misunderstandings more frequent, too.)

Patient service on the administrative side can be much more challenging when everyone’s stretched. If your practice can provide great, consistent service, though, your upside in terms of word of mouth and positive reviews can be better than any other time of year. Make sure you’re recognizing the staff drive better ratings and reviews by providing consistently kind and patient service. (This, in turn, helps encourage staff to do more of the same.)

2) Leverage your technology

Some patients may not realize they can save money by booking covered services before their deductibles reset in January. Your EMR and practice management system can help you identify patients who’ve postponed procedures or higher-cost services. (For example, you can search on specific ICD codes in the EMR.) If you’ve been tracking patients who’ve put off care using a recall feature of your EMR or PMS, good for you—now’s the time to take advantage of that.

Any extra efficiency you can squeeze from your systems will improve service and profitability in the last quarter of the year. If you’re not sure you’re up to speed on all your platforms can do, contact your vendor for a refresher. (It’s not unusual at all to fall behind, with so many features rolled out during the year.) And if you’re not yet tracking patients for fall recall, ask your vendors how to do this most efficiently. (It might not pay off this year, but it will help for next time.)

3) Communicate early and often

There’s much to communicate at this time of year, both to patients and staff. If you haven’t done it already, consider creating evergreen materials (handouts, website content, social media posts) that you can use every year to get the word out. For example, patients eager to get procedures done before year end need to know they’re among many with the same idea—so they need to book as soon as possible. And even for practices that don’t have a rush for procedures at year end, there can be other reasons the season is busy, such as flu shots and the flu itself. If you’re planning to extend hours or offer a special clinic for flu shots, that’s great! But make sure people know about it by spreading the word early and often.

When it comes to communication, whether to patients or to staff, we often joke that “if you don’t feel like you’re over-communicating, you’re not communicating enough.” The reality is, with so many messages bombarding us each day, it’s easy for important information to be missed or forgotten. So worry less about repeating yourself and more about not repeating your messages often enough.

Social media can be a huge help. Schedule posts to remind patients throughout the fall about the deductible reset and the need to book procedures as soon as possible. Remind patients about getting flu shots, scheduling back-to-school and athletic physicals early, and any extra hours you may set up for patients ill with viruses.

Make sure you’ve claimed your Google Business listing, and have updated it with your holiday hours (and any extended hours you’re offering). And the free blogging option on your Google page is another great tool for sharing important scheduling information with patients.

4) Don’t let no-shows undercut your success

No-shows and late cancels are profitability killers at any time of year. But when you’re facing peak demand and other patients might have taken a spot that was lost to a no-show… that’s an extra loss that you don’t want to incur.

Make sure you’re doing everything you can to minimize these unexpected losses. Consider:

– Making sure you’re collecting email and cell/text information from each patient—and asking what their best reminder channel is. (And if the patient wants more than one reminder type, that’s great—make sure you can do that.)
– Stress at scheduling that this time of year is so busy, some patients may not get the luxury of booking at their preferred time. “We’re happy to have scheduled you at a time that’s convenient for you. Please be sure to keep all your appointments or cancel well in advance, because we have other patients that would happily take your spot.”
– Make sure you’re reminding patients far enough in advance so that if they have to cancel, they can do it in time for you to rebook their slots.

5) If you expect a January-February slowdown, plan for that, too

The slowdown many practices experience in January can be stressful. The quick drop in revenue can be a bit scary. But if you plan for it, the slower pace of the first quarter can actually be an opportunity to recharge and take on projects that you’re too busy to take on at other times of the year.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

– Setting aside a financial reserve for January and February can help lower stress about revenues. While the extra revenue at year end may make upgrades you’ve been putting off possible, carve some of the revenue out so you’re not worried about making payroll in Q1.
– Prepare for patient collections and patient hesitancy in January. Make sure all staff are trained on explaining costs to patients, and make sure your financial policy documents are up-to-date. Encourage patients to book during the less-busy season for their own convenience (another idea for your blog or social media). Above all, make sure you’ve got all the technology you need in place to make payment easy for patients. Patients should be able to pay online easily, set up automatic payments, and, ideally, set up payment plans themselves.
– If your state and local laws don’t complicate this, you might consider bonusing staff with, say, a half-day of extra time off if they take it during January or February.
– If you are confident your volume will be lower, consider closing the office one half-day per week during the slow month or two. (Make sure staff whose finances will be impacted by this have plenty of notice. For example, you might explain in October that this change will be coming in January—but that everyone will have an opportunity to work a bit of overtime during November and December, to help smooth out their income.)
– If staff members have downtime in the office, or if you decide to abridge your schedule a bit during Q1, that’s also a great opportunity to work on online reputation management, social media, and other marketing. (Don’t forget payer directories, which may be updated by health plans for the new year, sometimes introducing errors.) Create and update standard documents that you can use throughout the year, and at the next year-end. It’s a great time for technology training and other education that is harder to fit in when the office is at its busiest.

Do you have questions about preparing for the year-end rush and January slowdown? Need some help—or just want to make a comment? Please feel free to contact us (or visit our Facebook page).

About the Author: Laurie Morgan

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