But what about when they need to cancel those appointments on short notice? Physician practices then play phone tag with patients they’ve manually entered into a wait list to fill the canceled appointment, or deal with the lost time. Patients, meanwhile, have to wait all over again for a new appointment.
“The nature of life is that people cancel appointments,” said Tashfeen Ekram, the founder of health IT startup SchedFull. “Surprisingly, penalizing them doesn’t work that well. It might actually make them less likely to come back.”
That’s where SchedFull comes in. It’s an online waiting list that matches openings in a physician’s schedule with patients who could potentially fill the time slot. Physician practices would purchase access to the Web-based software and generate wait lists by inputting information about their patients’ availability and scheduling preferences. When a cancellation comes in, they would be able to alert specific patients whose availability and preferences match the appointment via email or SMS. Patients who receive those messages could ignore them, call the office or reply to the text message to be connected with the office automatically.
SchedFull is in its early stages and being tested by beta users in clinics that Ekram has engaged with personally, but he’s hoping to bring more beta testers on board, with the goal of accumulating a big enough user base that he can feel confident it’s a valuable, scalable product. Ekram, a physician by training, is bootstrapping the company’s efforts for now.
He’s gotten some valuable insight from its testing so far, though. For one, Ekram said he’s discovered another problem with cancellations: they’re usually the earliest sign that patients won’t be returning to the doctor. That’s why there’s another component to SchedFull, one that generates email and text follow-ups to patients who cancel appointments, with the hope that they just need a reminder to prompt them to reschedule their appointments.
Ekram emphasizes that SchedFull is not full-scheduling software and works independently of any scheduling programs. It is, however, in the works to integrate with what he referred to as a “well-known, Web-based EMR.” If all goes well, he said, he’d like to pursue more EMR integrations in the future.
He’d also like to develop a separate interface that would allow patients to log in and manage their preferences themselves, a project that’s in the works now.
With all of this, he hopes to bridge a disconnect in the world of patients and physicians. In a 2009 survey to determine average wait times for appointments in 15 metropolitan areas (PDF), Merritt Hawkins & Associates called more than 1,100 physician offices and found average wait times as high as 63 days in Boston to as low as seven days in Miami.
The average wait time for Detroit, where Ekram and SchedFull are based, was two weeks. “There are openings in most doctors’ schedules,” he said, “but patients have such a hard time getting an appointment.”