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With online scheduling platforms, we can easily book a flight, schedule a meeting, and buy tickets to see the latest movies — so why is it still such a challenge to book an annual wellness appointment with your local veterinarian?
Overview of Veterinary Appointment Scheduling
Across the healthcare industry, there are hundreds of small scheduling management platforms that do not easily “talk” to one another, causing information to be fragmented and even lost. Changes to the schedule, staff vacation days, and notes about an appointment end up on sticky notes around a computer rather than input into a well-oiled scheduling platform.
Additionally, establishing robust backend processes can often be put off to focus on more exciting sources of growth: acquiring new patients, hiring highly-qualified doctors of veterinary medicine (DVMs), and opening more veterinary clinics.
By taking the time to put a unified scheduling system in place, clinical practices will increase their ROI and have less of a headache for clients and doctors alike.
Benefits of Veterinary Appointment Scheduling Systems
An integrated veterinary appointment scheduling system is the backbone of a well-run animal practice, whether a small private practice or a large animal hospital. Such veterinary clinics are prepared for the day ahead, as front-facing staff knows who will be walking in the doors and can adjust more quickly to meet the needs of any cancellations, no-shows, and emergencies that will inevitably arise.
Additionally, practice owners who can adequately predict a clinic’s schedule can account for the correct amount of staff and inventory they’ll need for a given day, week, or month. This saves time, reduces cost, and increases the clinic’s overall ROI.
3 Main Features of Veterinary Appointment Scheduling Systems
With so many scheduling options on the market, it is vital to understand the different types and choose the one which will work best for your practice.
Online Booking Systems
Data shows that clients book at least 50% of appointments after clinic hours. Offering options for scheduling an appointment, outside of calling the office during business hours, allows many more people to schedule appointments conveniently.
An online booking system can integrate into your veterinary clinic’s website and provides several other features, such as automatic reminders and alerts, that save both pet owners and staff members time and energy.
You can pair an online booking platform with a mobile app to make it more convenient. That way, clients can access their appointment information, fill out forms, learn tips for how to care for their animals, and more, all from their smartphones.
Automated Reminders and Alerts
Automating much of the scheduling workflow saves clients and staff precious time and makes the process easier for all. Pet owners can be automatically reminded of upcoming appointments through notifications, email, or even text messages. They can then check in and complete the necessary paperwork online before arriving at the veterinary practice. It also provides an easy way for the animal hospital to communicate rate changes or cancellation policies.
When looking for the right veterinary scheduling system for your practice, choose one that integrates your booking, charting, and billing information into one platform. Or choose a few platforms that integrate with each other to streamline the veterinary scheduling process.
Different Ways to Handle Veterinary Appointment Scheduling
Every animal hospital will operate a little differently. Some will have their busiest times in the morning or on weekends. Others will have a steady stream no matter the time of day. It is crucial to think through how to best schedule your appointments to keep a steady and smooth flow of traffic. There are a few ways to do this.
Time-specified scheduling is the most traditional way to schedule appointments. It is also known as stream scheduling, single booking, or fixed-appointment scheduling.
Time-specified scheduling is when each patient is given a specific time for an appointment. Depending on the needs, the receptionist then blocks out a certain amount of time for that patient. A quick follow-up may only need 10 to 20 minutes, while a complete physical examination might take 30 to 45 minutes.
Wave scheduling is when a receptionist schedules 4-6 patients every hour, and the licensed veterinarian provides hands-on animal care in the order that they arrive. When done well, this type of scheduling creates shorter waiting times and an agile flow.
Some practices find that modifying this system works even better: the receptionist will schedule patients for the first half-hour of every hour and keep the second half open. This builds in flexibility for when patients are late or a veterinarian takes longer (or finishes earlier) diagnosing and caring for an animal.
Some animal hospitals prefer open booking. Open booking is when patients select a range of hours for an appointment rather than a set time. A patient might choose 1:00 – 3:00 PM and then come in for animal care at any time during those two hours.
Open booking can work well for busy practices with an unpredictable flow of patients.
Best Practices for Veterinary Appointment Scheduling
No matter which type of scheduling system you choose, there are some general best practices to ensure scheduling and managing appointments runs as smoothly as possible.
Proper Care and Follow-Up Appointments
Educate Your Clients
All animals deserve proper health care and attention. But too often, animal owners are caught off guard by the expense or time commitment required. The best way to provide animals with proper care is to openly communicate with their owners and set healthy expectations.
Let them know which vaccines you recommend, what procedures their animal might need, and their associated costs. Be honest and upfront with your veterinary practice’s policies, and clearly explain possible concerns (both for the animal’s welfare and overall public health) if a diagnosis is left untreated or preventative measures are declined.
Ask Prerequisite Questions
Make sure that clear communication goes both ways — to care for a companion animal properly, you need to identify the core issue and schedule them with the right doctor at the right time. When scheduling appointments over the phone, have your receptionists ask the following questions. When using an online booking platform or mobile app, work these questions into the scheduling process:
- What is the main issue?
- When did it start?
- Has your animal’s behavior changed? How so?
- Does your animal have any other health concerns the veterinarian should know about?
- Do you have any other pets at home?
As you schedule the appointment, take both these questions and the stress level of the owner into consideration as you assess how urgent the situation is. Logging the animal’s issues in its chart provides the veterinary technician and lead vet with helpful context going into the appointment.
Check for Other Pets in the Home
Scan through the pet owner’s file to see if any other animals live at home. Cats and older animals tend to forego care too often. Always check to make sure all animals in the home are receiving proper health care. Bringing one in for a screening is a great time to get all of them in for their annual wellness appointments.
Forward Book Appointments
Every animal should have a future appointment scheduled when they leave your office. People have no problem scheduling dentist and doctor visits months in advance, so it should be the same with veterinary appointments. They might need to reschedule the appointment later, but just having one on the books makes them more likely to return on time.
Allow All Team Members to Schedule Appointments
To ensure all patients walk away with a future appointment scheduled, allow vet assistants, vet technicians, and receptionists to schedule the appointments. Vet techs and assistants should be able to schedule the appointment in the exam room.
If technology or time doesn’t permit, have them end each appointment by saying, “We can’t wait to see you and Muffin in a year for her annual exam; Sheila can set you up with that appointment when you check out.” This simple prompting sets the tone and expectation that patients should regularly bring in their pets for wellness checks.
Minimizing Last-Minute Cancellations and Double Bookings
Data shows that a single veterinary clinic could lose up to $50,000 annually due to cancellations and no-shows. That means that putting systems in place to help reduce these directly impacts your bottom line.
Appointment Reminders and Alerts
One of the most effective ways to minimize cancellations and no-shows is simply to remind your patients of their appointment. We all know what it is like for the day to get away from us. But an automated phone call, email, or text message keeps the appointment top-of-mind. It significantly helps to prevent appointments from being left unattended.
One of the best features of a system with automated alerts is a virtual waitlist. Clients can sign up to receive notifications when there is a last-minute cancellation. If the time works for them, they can take the appointment. It’s a seamless way to fill those open slots and provide excellent customer service.
Managing the Flow of Patients in the Veterinary Office
With a variety of animals visiting your office, it is critical not to overcrowd the waiting room. No owner wants to protect their dainty companion animal from a sizable rowdy dog while waiting for a surgical procedure. Nor does anyone want to keep their cat scared in a cage for longer than they have to. It is critical to keep the flow of patients in and out of the waiting room moving. To do this, follow these simple techniques.
Integrate Paperwork into the Scheduling System
Allowing pet owners to fill out the necessary forms before arriving at the office will reduce the time they need to spend in the waiting room — a win-win for everyone.
Create a Template for Appointment Lengths
Track how long appointments take and create a standard length of time for each treatment, procedure, and type of appointment. This allows staff and clients to know roughly how long an appointment will take and sets proper expectations for wellness exams, sick visits, and surgical procedures.
Schedule the Most Challenging Tasks in the Morning
Psychologists tell us we are the most productive at the beginning of the day. Follow their advice and schedule a DVM’s most intense appointments in the morning. This will not only boost their productivity but will also build in extra time if an examination or procedure takes longer than expected. It also means that, throughout the afternoon, staff can monitor animals who underwent surgery in the morning.
Urgent Care and Emergency Service Availability
One of the most complex parts of healthcare is not knowing what a day might bring. It is, therefore, critical to have systems in place for how your clinic will handle urgent animal situations and walk-ins.
Assess the Situation First
Pet owners will sometimes call with an emergency that is not, in fact, an emergency. Ask questions and get an understanding of just how critical the situation is. Many can wait until the next day so you can save resources and availability for truly urgent needs with animal health concerns.
Block out Time
Plan for unpredictability. Many clinics dedicate one hour per doctor daily for emergency appointments and walk-ins. Block out these times on the schedule and spread them throughout the day. That way, there is always an available doctor to handle an emergency. And if no urgent need comes to the clinic, the veterinarian then has a few extra minutes to handle clerical work, get ready for the next appointment, or take a minute to themselves.
Challenges with Veterinary Appointment Scheduling Systems
As with all business systems, there is no perfect solution. But finding a comprehensive and effective platform will minimize many of the challenges veterinarians face when scheduling appointments.
As discussed, there are many scheduling systems across the healthcare industry. This means that clinics often rely on a dozen or more platforms to handle all facets of their veterinary business. Clunky systems get the best of even the most savvy DVMs. Invest in a system that integrates information easily and smooths your operations and processes.
Keeping Pet Parents Informed of Upcoming Appointments
A byproduct of fractured information is that communication falls through the cracks more easily. It is critical to have systems that connect with pet parents with enough lead time before their appointment. Have automatic emails, text messages, and phone calls set up — and use all platforms. Multiple touchpoints will ensure a higher success rate in informing all pet parents of their upcoming appointments.
Ensuring Steady Flow of Business
By investing in the very backbone of your business — and getting patients easily into your doors — you are setting your clinic up for success. Without a regular flow of patients, your business will not succeed.
Making it easier for clients to schedule appointments and access the necessary information about their pets ensures they will feel satisfied and remain loyal to your clinic.