The Future is Now: The Rise of the Virtual Waiting Room

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female doctor with stethoscope hand pointing touching virtual screen interface with his finger and heartbeat line on waiting room in hospital background, medical innovation technology concept

Cool Photos from Depositphotos

By Scott Freedman

Crowded waiting rooms used to be a status symbol for practices and health systems. Those days, however, are long gone — and not just because of COVID-19. Continued outbreaks may prevent some patients from visiting their provider in person, but consumer expectations about their healthcare experience have also changed.

Due to the growth and continued adoption of telehealth and other digital health tools, patients want to minimize time spent in the practice due to convenience, not just safety. Beyond just offering telehealth services, practices also need to simplify and digitize registration, check-in, payment and patients waiting for their appointment. 

Offering patients a more seamless experience and incorporating more digital, mobile tools that they can use at home, fosters engagement, encourages appointment attendance and has become the new normal for growing health systems, organizations and practices.

Financial and Staffing Challenges Prompt Change

Restrictions on elective procedures and patient concerns about visiting their doctor due to virus exposure had a massive revenue impact in 2020 — and 2021 recaps look like it will be similar. Throughout the year, providers in numerous states announced postponing elective surgeries due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Yet even before the Delta, and now Omicron, variants started spreading throughout the U.S., hospitals and health systems were still faced with a long road ahead. Organizations are expected to lose anywhere from $53 billion to $122 billion in 2021, depending on how patient volume recovers and how long staffing and supply chains continue to be disrupted. Staffing, in particular, will likely be a major increase in cost as health systems and practices compete for available clinicians. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, staffing was rated as the top challenge among medical group leaders. Nearly two years later, that challenge has only exacerbated as health systems are offering $40,000 signing bonuses for nurses. 

Even more profound is the crippling impact the current staffing challenge is having on traditional staffing models. Now, more than ever, health care organizations are looking to technology to enable them to operate effectively with less staff. Relying on well-trained staff to positively engage patients and keep workflows progressing is quickly becoming less of an option. Not to mention, to stay competitive in this staffing shortage environment means maintaining telehealth and in-person visits simultaneously as patient health concerns and consumer experience expectations shift. 

Patients Prefer Low-Touch Care

Driving this change is telehealth, which experienced enormous growth in 2020, with many patients trying the service for the first time. Although telehealth volume has decreased in 2021, it is still 38-times higher than it was in 2019.

Even with more patients resuming in-person care, practices are discovering that they and their patients prefer the “low-touch” processes that were implemented during 2020. One of those changes was eliminating the in-person check-in and waiting room steps entirely so patients flowed directly from their car to the exam room. Patients not only appreciate the convenience of bypassing the waiting room but also that it limits potential virus exposure with continued new outbreaks — and likely new variants.

Due to the improved patient experience and efficiencies, practices expect to continue with this new, streamlined workflow. Some are even considering taking the next step: eliminating the brick-and-mortar waiting area altogether.

Patients’ Changing Expectations

While COVID-19 has certainly been a catalyst in helping more practices streamline administrative workflows, this shift toward consumerism has been brewing for years. Driven by high-deductible health plans that require more out-of-pocket spending, patients are more selective about their care — and not just in terms of quality, but also service and convenience. 

A 2020 healthcare consumer experience study found that finding, accessing and paying for healthcare in the United States is so difficult that half of consumers surveyed said they have avoided seeking care. Influenced by banking, travel and retail, patients expect their doctor to offer more digital options for appointment scheduling, communication and payment.

Whether patients are seeking telehealth or in-person care, patient engagement technology can help organizations eliminate the traditional waiting room activities of filling out paper forms and submitting insurance information. For example, patients at home should be able to schedule appointments, register and check-in through their smartphone or computer, including scanning their insurance card, signing forms and other tasks.

For both telehealth and in-person, patients should receive automated appointment reminders via email or text message until they are ready to be taken to the exam room or start the video visit. This automation saves time for front office staff, but the greatest advantage is the potential to drastically reduce no-shows and last-minute cancellations.

Streamlining administrative steps and engaging the patient before the visit offers opportunities to begin learning about the patient and educating them. Providers can collect information about patients via surveys sent to their mobile device or computer that are relevant to their particular demographics, appointment type and history to learn more about social determinants of health (SDOH) or other health risks.

The result of this proactive data gathering is a more efficient exam where provider interviews can be more targeted and meaningful to the patient while shortening the required appointment time — without sacrificing the quality of care.

The New Normal

Travel, banking, retail, communication and many other industries and areas of our lives have been forever changed by the Internet and mobile devices — now it is healthcare’s turn.

In addition to telehealth, healthcare providers must shift the non-essential in-person activities, such as registration, check-in, payment — even waiting room time — to off-site where feasible. Eliminating or reducing waiting room space also enables practices to convert space to generate more revenue. This could include adding exam rooms, or creating areas for new services, such as an in-house lab, physical therapy, vaccination stations or behavioral health. Less time spent on traditional registration and check-in administration also means front office and medical assistants’ time can be repurposed for telehealth and remote patient monitoring (RPM).

Utilizing patient engagement technology to support this hybrid virtual/in-person environment will enable health care organizations to regain revenue and grow their practices amidst these changing patient expectations – while continuing to deliver excellent care online and in-person.

About the author: 

Scott Freedman is chief revenue officer for Epion Health.