A frustrated veterinary receptionist emailed me looking for solutions to her clinic’s scheduling nightmares. The three-doctor practice double-books veterinarians most days, must sometimes turn away sick patients and has exhausted employees. The hospital is hiring another doctor and two veterinary technicians, a process that may take months.
How can the hospital see the maximum number of patients and give employees relief? Here are six scheduling secrets that your receptionists don’t know:
1) Ask questions to efficiently book exams in less than three minutes.
A receptionist can’t spend 12 minutes talking with a client when booking an appointment. Two callers are on hold and a third client is waiting at the front desk to pay. To control the pace of the conversation, ask four questions:
“What will we be seeing your pet for?” This lets you evaluate urgency. Sick patients should be seen the same day, while preventive checkups can be scheduled within one week.
“Is there a doctor you prefer?” If the client requests a specific doctor, offer the next two available exams with that veterinarian. If the caller doesn’t have a preference, offer two appointment choices with the doctor who is first available or with a new associate who is building client relationships.
“Which day of the week works best for your schedule?” If she requests Wednesday, search available exams on the next two Wednesdays.
“Do you prefer an appointment in the morning, afternoon or evening?” You’re asking the caller for a window, not a specific time. If the caller replies, “2 p.m.” say, “Let’s see what we have available on Wednesday afternoon.”
2) Ask about health concerns when scheduling preventive checkups.
When clients receive reminders and call to book exams, ask, “Does <pet name> have any other health concerns that you want to discuss with the doctor?” Her answer may require a longer appointment.
When the caller explains that her 10-year-old dog seems stiff and doesn’t enjoy walks, schedule a 30-minute exam for an arthritis workup instead of a 20-minute preventive checkup. Another caller who received an annual reminder shares that her cat occasionally urinates outside the litterbox. Inappropriate elimination becomes the chief complaint, which the veterinarian will address before delivering preventive services.
My webinar on “Secrets to Effective Scheduling,” available here, includes choosing the right appointment lengths and using a surgical and dental point system to book procedures.
3) Lead callers with the two-yes-options technique.
Suggest two appointment times that will work well for exam flow and client experiences. Say, “The doctor can see you at 1 or 3 p.m. Which choice works for you?” If neither fits the client’s schedule, move on to the next two options.
Don’t overwhelm callers with too many choices. “Do you want the 1:10, 2:15, 3:45 or 5:15 p.m. exam?” sounds like the city bus schedule rather than a time to see a veterinarian. You’ll confuse callers and send the message that you’re not busy, which could leave negative impressions.
4) Guide clients toward specific appointments rather than letting them choose.
You’ll have a messy schedule if clients erratically pick appointments. Receptionists need to follow guidelines for appointment lengths and create structure when booking preventive checkups, sick-patient exams, medical progress exams, attended euthanasia, new clients and other exam types.
Lack of organization could cause peaks and valleys in your schedule. You end up with a crazy Monday morning and an empty Thursday afternoon. When a client calls about a preventive checkup, steer her toward lower-volume appointment times where you need to fill valleys.
5) Sandwich a sick-patient exam between two preventive checkups.
A client calls to request an appointment at 2:30 p.m. today for her sick dog. The slot is open, but you have sick-patient exams at 2 and 3 p.m. If you grant her wish, you will have three sick-patient exams in a row. Workups may cause exams to run late, increase client wait times and stress your medical team.
Turn this lose-lose-lose scheduling nightmare into manageable exams. Whenever possible, sandwich a sick-patient exam between two preventive checkups. Preventive care is more predictable and therefore likely to stay on time.
When responding to the caller with a sick pet, first express empathy. Say, “I’m sorry to hear that your dog is sick. Let’s schedule an urgent care exam today. The doctor can see your dog at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. Which time fits your schedule?” You’ve directed the pet owner to two exam times that follow preventive visits.
6) Use urgent-care slots.
Panicked pet owners call your clinic every morning about sick pets. Because this pattern is predictable, block urgent-care slots in your schedule so you can see sick patients the same day. Reserve at least three 30-minute urgent-care slots per doctor per day.You may need more slots on Monday, Friday and Saturday, when practices typically see a higher volume of sick animals.
How many urgent-care slots will you need? Estimate that 20 percent of exams will be same-day sick patients. If your veterinarian averages three exams an hour and has appointments for six hours, he would see 18 patients. If you assume 20 percent will be same-day sick patients, block four urgent-care exams in the schedule.
Because the number of urgent-care exams may vary by weekday, review last week’s schedule. Add up how many patients each doctor saw on each weekday. Multiply each day’s patient count by 20 percent to determine how many urgent-care slots you will need on specific days of the week. If the volume of sick patients on Saturdays consistently has you working late, schedule an urgent-care exam at the top of every hour.
In a multi-doctor practice, stagger urgent-care slots for each doctor by one hour. If two doctors both see urgent-care exams at 10 a.m., they will play “steal the technician” and trigger traffic jams. Here is an example of staggered urgent-care blocks:
Because these patients will need workups, reserve the last urgent-care slot at 60 to 90 minutes before closing time to avoid employee overtime.
If urgent-care appointments don’t get filled within 90 minutes of the blocked time, open them for any client. Let’s say you have an urgent-care slot at 10 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., no one has called about a sick pet. A client calls at 8:45 a.m. and asks, “I have a new puppy. Can I bring him in today?” If the urgent-care slot at 10 a.m. hasn’t been claimed, reply, “Congratulations on your new baby! We have an appointment available at 10 a.m. today. Does that work for you?”