Going to see a healthcare provider can be a stressful situation for many people.
When you’re already sick, nervous or unsure about your health, having to sit through an intake process might feel uncomfortable or even excruciating, depending on your pain levels and concerns.
Things can be made worse if the practice or hospital waiting room is overcrowded, wait times are long, or the staff is busy or distracted.
But it’s important to ensure that patients are receiving the best treatment from the moment they set foot through the door. Having a great intake process will help patients feel more at ease with an otherwise difficult situation.
Here are a few tips for improving the intake process so patients feel better about their care.
1. Reduce Fear of the Unknown
“Many people feel anxious because they fear the unknown, and they let their imagination run wild,” she says. “They may imagine a worst-case scenario, when in fact going for, say, an annual check-up is the best prevention.”
For healthcare office staff that help patients with the intake process, one of the best ways to reduce anxiety for new patients is to explain what they can expect during the first moments they arrive.
Offering amenities to patients, such as water or showing them where to find the bathroom, can help put them at ease, even if they’re still anxious about the visit.
Even something as simple as saying, “The nurse will call your name and take you through that door,” can fill in knowledge gaps for new patients who might not know how things work.
Dr. Cox also encourages practices to include “relaxing” elements in waiting room, like plants, soft lighting, access to water, and distractions like magazines or a T.V.
2. Leverage Technology and Online Tools
Thanks to advances in technology like Electronic Healthcare Records (EHR) and Patient Portals, time spent during in-office intakes can be reduced or even eliminated by having patients access information before they come in.
According to one American Hospital Association report, 92% of patients use EHR systems to view their health records online, both before and after appointments.
Other types of technology, like online intake forms, can also save time for patients who are coming in for regular checkups.
Because they can fill in information online before they arrive, their time in the clinic can be spent focusing on their care rather than copious amounts of paperwork.
Automated messaging systems and email tools can also help deliver vital information to patients about things like billing, medical insurance, follow-up care, and upcoming appointments.
Online tools not only simplify the intake process for patients, but can free up valuable time for staff and doctors so they can spend office time interacting with patients rather than filing and checking paperwork.
3. Make Referral Patients Feel Welcome
Referrals to a different clinic, doctor or separate area of the practice (like X-Ray) can add anxiety to an already stressful situation.
Having to navigate around the halls to the get an x-ray or CT scan while you’re already sick, tired or otherwise unwell can add to the frustration experienced by patients.
For departments within the practice that frequently receive referrals, it’s important to understand the journey that the patient has been on and what they’ve already experienced up to that point.
If this is their second or third intake or check-in for the day, for instance, it will be important to continue communicating about their care, directing them to where they need to go, and remaining friendly throughout their appointment.
4. Train Staff on the Referral and Intake Processes
According to a recent study, 63% of referring physicians are “dissatisfied with the current referral process due to lack of timeliness of information and inadequate referral letter content.”
Studies also show that 70% of the specialists rate the patient referral information they receive from other providers as fair or poor, and 1/4 patients report that their records from one provider did not reach another provider in time for their appointment.
When key information isn’t properly processed between departments or practices, it can increase wait times for patients or result in poorer care.
It can also lead to frustrated physicians and office staff, which in turn may lead to more anxiety for the patient during the intake or referral process.
Because physician-to-physician or practice-to-practice communication is so vital to the success of any outpatient referral, staff and physicians should all know how to handle referrals.
This may include additional training for staff so they understand the technology involved in the referral process, or updating your technology so that communications can be improved (if they’re struggling with current referral technology).
When staff and physicians are properly communicating, the quality of care for the patient improves.
To put that in perspective, roughly 80% of medical errors involve informational or personal miscommunication.
5. Make Healthcare Staff Happy, Too
The easiest way to stress out a patient is by having a stressed out office staff.
When staff is happy and responsive, on the other hand, the focus on the patient improves and the intake and referral process is more efficient.
So how do you keep office staff happy?
First, make sure you’re listening to their needs. If there are frequent complaints from the intake staff about technology issues or miscommunication, make sure their complaints are addressed quickly.
Make sure they have access to all the technology they need to do their job.
If possible, ensure that staffing needs are adequately filled.
While it can be difficult to maintain steady schedules, especially when the practice is busy or understaffed/underfunded in general, it’s important that front desk staff isn’t overwhelmed.
On average, office staff handles around 20,000 forms every year. If staff is already under a time pressure to file documents, this leaves little room or energy for focus on the patient.
Stressed out patients will then stress out staff, who will then stress out patients, and the cycle will continue until one or both are made happy. This vicious cycle can be mitigated by taking extra measures to keep staff happy and productive.
Using technology to ease the paper workload is key, as well as listening to their needs, addressing common challenges and problems when they arise, and paying staff adequately for their time.
This will all help to reduce the burden on the office staff so they can make patients as happy as possible during the intake and referral process.
Because healthcare appointments can be so stressful for patients (and staff), it’s important to take preventative measures to keep patients as calm as possible.
Offering the choice to fill out intake forms online before they come in can help reduce the stress of the initial intake for the patient, especially if they are feeling unwell or overly anxious about their appointment.
Having a clear communications system in place for referrals is equally important so that no important information is missed.
And finally, making sure that the office is properly staffed and that staff have everything they need to do their job will ensure that they remain happy and focused on the patient, so the patient can leave happy (or as happy as possible), too.