Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Do Patients Leave Our Care Before They Got Well…and What Can We Do About It? (Part 1)

We’ve all had it happen. A patient comes in once or maybe even a half dozen times. Then they break their next appointment or don’t make one at all and never come in to our clinic again. They don’t return our calls or emails.

What happened here? Of course there could be many possibilities and it may have nothing to do with you at all. But chances are it comes down to a few things we could all do differently to lower the number of disappearing patients. Here are my ideas on this subject and I hope they resonate with you or offer you some food for thought.

I believe most patient disappearance comes down to three things: poor office-patient communication and education, poor business and office management, or inflexible pricing and payment options. Here are some ideas on how can you improve?

Improving office-patient communication and education

To keep a patient for the long haul, we need to do our utmost to make sure that patients see, hear, and understand all our communication with them. Firstly, this is important when educating patients about the necessity of getting a full course of treatment, however many you believe are required to get the patient well using acupuncture. With herbal therapy this may translate into how many weeks or months of herbs you believe they will need to take.

Secondly, signage in your clinic can go a long way toward explaining things about our medicine as well as what you specifically offer to patients and to your community. You can and probably should have “did you know” type signs about various conditions that you like to treat. For example if you like to treat insomnia, a simple sign that says “Did you know that sleep disorders are the most common diseases in the US today? Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can provide quick and effective help for many patients who suffer with sleep disorders. Ask for information for a friend or family member today.” can be effective at educating your patients about the broad scope of conditions that you can treat and about which they did not know. Also, signs that offer your services as a speaker for your patients’ groups and affiliations, signs that let patients know about your volunteer activities, and signs that offer free or reduced price treatments in exchange for participation in a fundraising or volunteer activity all let your patients know that you are a community participant and care about something before your front door. All this kind of information all should be on your website or company Facebook page.

Third, your written educational materials should be easy-to-read and understand. Be wary of using the word “qi” when speaking to patients or writing educational flyers or website copy. We are not even able to translate this word accurately into English. I suggest discussing ideas that Westerners can understand, like balancing your nervous/endocrine/ system, improving your immune response, engaging the body’s innate ability to heal itself, improving organ function, helping the body overall back to proper homeostasis, as better approaches to helping patients understand something about what we do. Always write copy for brochures and your website for the first time reader who knows nothing about acupuncture and Asian medicine.

One friend of mine always schedules an extra 30-45 minutes into her first appointment with a patient. This time is spent allowing her and her patient to get to know each other a little, doing extensive and planned patient education, as well as making sure the patient understands and agrees to a specific financial arrangement with the clinic. In her case, that may mean having her assistant check on insurance benefits while she is working with the patient, it may be creating a payment plan or agreeing on a treatment schedule that will work clinically but also be workable for the patient’s budget. She loses very few patients before their care with her is complete. She says her goal is to keep every patient for life.

Finally, I suggest bonding calls and reminder calls (or texts or emails), as well as semi-regular email and snail mail communications. A bonding call is done within 24 hrs of a first appointment and treatment. It allows you to answer any questions that may have come up in the patient’s mind, reassure them that you are there for them and really concerned about their care, and allows you to nip most problems of perception or misunderstandings in the bud very quickly. Reminder calls or texts are self-explanatory, but they will cut down your no-shows and most people appreciate these. (Who among us has never forgotten an appointment just because of the busy-ness of life?) You can use an opt-in email newsletter to stay in touch with patients, but mostly make this type of communication about cool things you are doing in the community (especially if they can participate), classes you are offering, the discount of the month, a book review, a video of you teaching a seasonal qi-gong exercise or preparing your favorite seasonal recipe. Think fun, light-hearted, community-centered. 

As for snail mail, I think the best use of it is to send a birthday or “thinking of you” card now and again, but one that has a specific, hand-written message in it instead of just signing your name. For example, “Dear ____, Here’s hoping this card finds you well and thriving. I saw that your birthday is coming up and it occurred to me that I recently attended a seminar where I learned a new type of treatment for your condition. If you ever have a recurrence of symptoms and would like to discuss it, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. Meanwhile, stay well and enjoy your birthday.  PS. Did your son get into one of the colleges he had applied to?”  You get the idea here. Keep it friendly, short, and specific to their life in some way.

There are many more suggestions about effectively managing patient communication in Section 2: Chapter 13 of the new and updated edition of Points for Profit (10/2013)

Next time…Part 2 of this blog: What Does Your Office Management Communicate to Patients?

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