From EHR to AI, the growing importance of technology in healthcare can’t be overstated. The growth of digitalization and teledentistry in the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the trend that was already in full force and demonstrated the key role that technology will play in healthcare in the future. 

But for many providers, the benefits of technology need to be weighed against its disadvantages. Yes, artificial intelligence can improve workflows for clinical decision making, but can it replace the patient education that a doctor provides? Electronic health records can greatly improve accuracy and interdisciplinary data sharing, but they can also interfere with the human connection that’s an essential component of provider-patient interaction. 

In many ways, dentists are at the forefront of this tension between technology and personal connection. Most patients who follow the recommended schedule will see their dentist more often than any other health provider, and for many dentists, that frequency of visits makes their personal connection with patients paramount. Dental visits are also usually non-emergent, which means patients are more likely to delay care if they feel undervalued or frustrated by their experience – a problem that personal connection can help prevent.

At the same time, modern patients expect more and more that their dental experience be convenient, user-friendly, and easy – an expectation that can best be met with the efficiency of technology. 

This tension between the desire for a personal connection with patients and the desire to provide a convenient, efficient experience is demonstrated in one of the key decisions every dental provider must make: How should patient scheduling be managed? Should patient scheduling focus on personal connection through a phone call? Or should it prioritize convenience through online scheduling

What do patients expect from dental appointment scheduling?  

When it comes to patient preference, the data is pretty clear: patients prefer convenience, which means online scheduling. A 2015 survey found that 58% of patients preferred automated communication for appointment scheduling, and that number has only gone up since then. The pandemic has increased the central role technology plays in work and leisure as well as healthcare, and it has made people who were previously hesitant more comfortable using technology. 

And even though the preference for convenient, technology-based communication does highlight the technological generation gap, that gap is closing. A significant majority of people across generations are likely to research products online and make purchases online. The ease of online comparison shopping means people are accustomed to finding a better option rather than dealing with inconvenience or hassle. This means that if making an appointment is difficult or inconvenient, they won’t do it – they’ll delay care, or they’ll find another dentist. 

Pros and Cons of the Old-Fashioned Phone Call 

However, patient preference for convenience is just one piece of the question regarding appointment scheduling software. Just because people prefer the convenience of technology doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for every problem. Compared to other industries, healthcare as a whole has been slower to adopt consumer-facing technology, and there are reasons for the hesitation. When it comes to scheduling appointments, the old-fashioned phone call does have some advantages. 

The most important advantage is also the most obvious: a phone call provides a human connection. For many providers, building that personal connection is a priority, and setting appointments by phone is one way to set that tone. The moment when a patient sets an appointment is an opportunity to connect with them and provide high-quality, personal customer service through a thoughtful conversation. 

A phone call is also an opportunity to ask and answer questions that are important for on-boarding new patients. While well-designed online forms are usually sufficient for all the patient information you need before a visit, a series of questions is more interactive and can reveal more valuable information. Unique or complex conditions may not be covered in an online form, and questions could get missed. In addition, a call provides an opportunity for staff to answer the patient’s questions and address any concerns the person has about the appointment. 

However, phone scheduling also has several disadvantages. One important factor is the already-mentioned inconvenience: in addition to requiring patients to call during business hours, phone scheduling requires significant staff time and administrative management. But probably its biggest disadvantage is the increased wait time caused by phone scheduling when compared to online appointment scheduling. One 2018 study found that the availability of online appointment scheduling tended to reduce the time a patient had to wait for an appointment – a factor that correlated closely with patient satisfaction.

More recent surveys show an even closer correlation between online scheduling and patient satisfaction, indicating that some patients will actually choose a different provider if online appointment scheduling is unavailable. Dentists who don’t offer online scheduling run the risk of losing their patients entirely. 

Pros and Cons of Online Scheduling 

Given that the convenience and ease of online scheduling is what consumers want from their healthcare providers, it’s surprising that more providers haven’t adopted it. Although web-based patient experience software is being adopted in more and more practices, many healthcare appointments are still scheduled by phone. 

For dentists who do adopt online scheduling, however, this gap provides an opportunity. In addition to providing convenience and accessibility for patients, online appointment scheduling reduces administrative costs and wait time. It also helps reduce downtime for providers, since software can easily fill no-show spots with a last-minute wait list

The only potential disadvantage of online scheduling is the loss of personal touch. By removing the human conversation from a patient’s initial interaction with your practice, it’s possible you’re missing an opportunity for human connection. However, the back-and-forth of appointment scheduling was never the best format for that connection, and it doesn’t outweigh the inconvenience of requiring patients to only schedule during business hours. The reduced administrative load enables staff to provide better customer service and more personal interaction when it matters – when patients step into your office. And by improving efficiency and reducing wait times, online scheduling can improve the patient experience in the way they value most: making their visit convenient and efficient, so their time isn’t wasted. 

Online appointment scheduling has a clear advantage for dentists and other healthcare providers. You can adopt it in your practice and still keep a personal touch. In addition, with a good software, it’s easy to combine online scheduling with automated follow-up such as text message confirmations and recalls. This enables you to combine the best of both worlds: along with the convenience and automation of online scheduling, and you can provide plenty of opportunities for patients to interact with you and call for a more personal interaction. An integrated system like this can provide an optimal patient experience, both for scheduling appointments and throughout their dental visit. 

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