Build your practice -- and patient loyalty -- with a simple,
By R. Scott Wooley, O.D. Flora, Ill.
O.D.s, attracting new patients is relatively easy. A few well-spent marketing and advertising dollars should bring them in -- once. Keeping them in the practice is the greater challenge. Of course, your skill and chairside manner mean a lot, but don't underestimate the power of recall.
A successful recall system is the lifeblood of an optometry practice. I believe it's the single most important factor in long-term practice growth. If you're still just sending postcards and hoping for the best, here's how you can improve your return rate.
USE TOOLS YOU HAVE
Pre-appointment recall with telephone follow-up is the system of choice for almost any optometry practice. Many practices I know have more than doubled their recall rates after implementing this system. How difficult is it?
If you've ever scheduled a return visit for a contact lens check or an IOP follow-up, you already know how to pre-appoint. Using this system to schedule your patients' comprehensive annual eye exams will maximize your revenue with minimal overhead.
The system is relatively simple. If you're using an office computer system for appointments, you already can schedule them a year in advance. You'll just need to be able to change each patient's appointment status.
If you're still using an appointment book, you'll need a two-column book so you can document the pre-appointment in the right-hand column and the confirmed appointment in the left-hand column. Now that you have the tools you need, let's step into your exam room.
DO YOUR PART
After you've examined your patient and explained your findings, take the conversation one step farther. Tell your patient when you want to see him again and why.
If Mr. Jones has normal, healthy eyes, explain: "Mr. Jones, we should see you again in a year to make sure your eyes stay healthy. Even if you feel you're still seeing OK, we need to check your eyes every year to make sure you continue to see well. Let's stop at the front desk so Susan can schedule a time for you."
If the patient does have ocular pathology, then explain: "Mr. Jones, we should see you again in (time frame) to check (the condition) to make sure it's under control. This way, if we do find some changes, we can take care of them early while they're still easy to treat. Let's stop at the front desk so Susan can schedule a time for you."
In both instances, you've explained the patient's current status and underscored the need for a return visit. This is where your staff takes over.
SCHEDULE THE APPOINTMENT
After the patient makes his future appointment, your staff should give him a card with the pertinent information and let him know someone from the office will call to remind him of the appointment a few weeks beforehand. The card reinforces the fact that you've reserved a specific time to see him in a year. Letting patients know about the reminder call gives them peace of mind about remembering an appointment that's a year away.
Also, in a subtle way, this process takes your patients out of the market for an eye doctor. After all, they don't need to worry about finding an eye doctor or making an appointment because they already have one with you.
CAREFUL FOLLOW UP
When making the reminder call, your staff should explain the reason for the call and confirm the appointment day and time. For
example: "Mr. Jones, this is Susan from Dr. Smith's office. When you visited us last year and Dr. Smith examined your eyes, he felt you should have your eyes examined again in about a year. At that time, we scheduled an appointment for (day/time). Is this day and time convenient, or do we need to reschedule the appointment?"
If Mr. Jones wants to keep the appointment, Susan simply changes the appointment status to
"preconfirmed" in your computer system or notes the status in the left-hand column of the appointment book. If Mr. Jones wants to keep the appointment but needs a different day or time, Susan should reschedule while he's on the phone.
If a patient wants to cancel his appointment, keep his name and contact information for future mailings. Keeping patients informed of new eyecare products and services you're offering may prompt them to contact your practice again in the future.
If a patient mentions why he's cancelling his appointment, your staff should pass the information along to you. A patient may cancel an appointment simply because he's moved to a new area. On the other hand, he may mention an unsatisfactory experience or something lacking in your practice, which gives you insight into how you can improve the practice.
Your staff's next contact with a returning patient will be a confirmation call the day before the appointment. If a patient cancels his appointment at this time, your staff should ask if he'd like to reschedule for 6 months from now. Many patients will say yes, giving you the opportunity to maintain the relationship.
What if you can't reach a patient to confirm his appointment? I usually double-book the time, knowing that my staff and I will have to work twice as hard if the patient does keep the appointment.
Recall postcards, although simple and inexpensive, are hardly the practice-builder you need in today's competitive environment. The best rate of return I've ever heard for a practice using postcards is just 30%. What's more, this passive and inefficient system doesn't represent your patients' best interests.
Having patients schedule their annual exams in advance emphasizes the importance of regular eye health check-ups. A pre-appointment recall system helps ensure that patients return to your practice for the care they need.
A 1988 graduate of Illinois College of Optometry, Dr. Wooley has been a private practitioner in Flora, Ill., for almost 17 years.
Optometric Management, Issue: March 2005