Optometric Management Tip # 471   -   Wednesday, March 02, 2011
Time to Get Serious with Patient Email and Texting

I think most ECPs already use email for patient communications to some extent, but now is the time to really move this effort into high gear.  If you are not using patient email yet, you really should develop a plan to begin now.  The benefits are huge and this is a trend that will only grow larger. 

I find email to be the primary form of electronic communication, but many people use their cell phones extensively as organizers and calendars and they may prefer text messages.  It is smart to offer both options to patients.

What to communicate
Just about everything you need to communicate with patients can be done by email.  And email is so easy and efficient that you'll even undertake some extra communications that are not required but just kind of nice.  When done well, these communications will build your practice. 

Better than the postal service or telephone
There are several good reasons to begin to use email for patient communications, but here are my top three:  saving money, office efficiency (which is still saving money) and patient satisfaction (which is making money). 

Some communications are quite large, like recall notices.  Email saves money on this monthly project by avoiding the cost of postage, printing, and staff time.  Add up your typical cost to mail 1,000 post cards per month and you'll see what I mean.  Don't resist the email process because you think you will still have to some mailing, so why bother?  You could cut your mail recall in half very quickly and over the next few years, virtually eliminate it.  But you have to start.

Other communications are more individual, like confirming appointments for tomorrow or letting patients know their glasses are ready.  Currently, you use the telephone for much of this, but ask your staff how often they place a call and do not reach the person intended.  They get voice mail more often than people.  Your staff leaves a voice message but who knows if the correct person ever retrieves it?  How inefficient.  Email is always there and the service I use indicates if the message was delivered and even if it was read.

Still other practice communications are simply not happening because they are too much trouble for your staff.  Welcome letters after an exam is completed or birthday greetings, for example.  I only recently started sending birthday greetings by email in my practice and I was surprised to see a few of those messages were used to request an appointment for an eye exam!  I assumed the birthday effort would generate some patient goodwill, but I did not expect appointments.  The online communication company I use searches my records for birthdays and sends the email greetings automatically and there are virtual buttons along the bottom that encourage the patient to schedule an appointment or refer a friend.

How to get email addresses
I've long been disappointed in the small percentage of patients who gave us email addresses for our records.  Obviously, we must overcome this issue if we are to reap the potential benefits of email communication.  I'm happy to report that we went from collecting email addresses on about 10% of patients to 80% almost overnight.  All I did was meet with my front desk staff and office manager and we discussed how important email is and how we would like to use it.  I told them that getting an email address from each patient is just as important as getting the phone number.

Of course, many people do not want to share email information with businesses, possibly for fear of spam, but we developed a strategy about how to respond to that resistance.  By assuring the patient that we will never share the email address with anyone and by explaining that we would like to use it for appointment reminders and other forms of communication, most people are quite willing to cooperate.  We have pads of paper at the front desk to help us get the email address correctly.

We have even made a dent in the large number of patient records from the past that do not have email data.  Our communication company offers a service that searches internet email directories for names that match our patient names and residential addresses.  The company then sends an automated email message asking the person to confirm the email address and if we may have permission to communicate with them via email.  I pay a small fee for each email address that is found, if the person opts in.

Online communication companies
There are several excellent companies that can assist you with the email process.  Some of these companies started out in the field of dentistry and have now moved into eye care and other fields.  Just ask your colleagues or visit a major eye care conference or email me for a list of names.  These companies work with your office management software program and upload all the information so the process is automatic.

There are many other services these online companies offer, such as assistance with “reputational marketing” in order to increase and improve reviews of your practice by patients which show up on Google, Yelp, Yahoo and many other review sites.  The firms also provide an interface for your staff, a dashboard, to show the appointments for the day and the status of confirmations.  The companies can even help your practice on Facebook.  This is the future of marketing and appointment management and it looks bright.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management