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For today's tech-savvy consumers, patient-centric care begins before the patient steps foot in the doctor's office, hospital or clinic.

It starts with the prospective patient trawling the web for provider reviews and ratings.

But what happens when they turn to the web to schedule an appointment and there's no option?

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If they call a doctor's office, they may discover they have to wait weeks before getting in. If they turn to an urgent-care clinic, they could wind up waiting hours before being seen.

That's unacceptable to today's impatient consumers. “Millennials don't even want to pick up the phone,” said Travis Moore, senior vice president of market solutions for Kyruus, a company that makes software for scheduling and matching patients to providers.

Providers are finally starting to take notice. Some are partnering with online scheduling services to ease the burden of booking physician appointments. That's a boon for patients and providers alike, as the former see their wait times decrease and the latter see their efficiency and patient satisfaction rise.

But the practice is still not widespread. About a fifth of appointments were self-scheduled in 2016, according to Accenture, up from 9% in 2015.

Though self-scheduling is on the rise, there's some evidence that many providers are moving backward on wait times. According to a 2017 Merritt Hawkins survey of physicians' offices in 15 major cities, the average wait time for a new patient is 24 days, up more than 30% since 2014.

Another survey found the process of even scheduling an appointment often took a while. In 2014 it took, on average, about 8 minutes on the phone for a patient to schedule an appointment, according to Accenture.

But all that may soon change, especially as consumers' shifting preferences increase the pressure on providers. “Project Japan consumers expect in healthcare the simplicity and convenience they get from other industries in their daily lives,” said Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health for Accenture.

By 2019, the consulting firm predicts, 64% of patients will schedule appointments digitally at U.S. health systems, compared to just 34% in 2016. The firm also predicts that all the top 100 U.S. health systems will provide digital self-scheduling and will be able to book most of their appointments through self-scheduling.

Many patients already have access to on-demand appointment scheduling. Every month, 6 million patients book using Zocdoc, an online scheduling service that launched in 2007. Providers pay a subscription fee to be listed on Zocdoc, which then syncs with their practice management software, finds appointment availability, and, in some cases, directly writes the appointments into their calendars.

The goal, said Zocdoc CEO Dr. Oliver Kharraz, is to make sure every patient can see a doctor within three days. “Typically, we overachieve,” he said. “The typical appointment with Zocdoc happens within 24 hours.”

Patients can go directly to the Zocdoc website, or they can access its scheduling tools by clicking a button on a participating provider's website. “The doctor wins because they're more fully utilized,” Kharraz said, “and the patient wins because they can see a doctor when they actually need one.”

Zocdoc recently introduced a link where patients can type in symptoms in natural language and be matched with the appropriate specialist. Since the service launched, Zocdoc has seen an increase in the number of specialties booked (more than 50 are available) and in the diversity of procedures scheduled, ranging from run-of-the-mill physicals to echocardiograms.

The company is continuing to look for new ways to make things easier for patients. “We are not done until getting to the doctor until after you leave is as seamless as when you order something from Amazon,” Kharraz said.

Because online scheduling gives patients access to many doctors from different healthcare systems, it can undermine patient loyalty to specific providers. In an effort to keep patients on their own websites—and therefore in their own practices—some providers are choosing to host online scheduling themselves, rather than on a third-party site such as Zocdoc.

That's the approach Kyruus takes. The company's software allows health systems to display physician profiles and ratings on their site, where the patients can also schedule the appointments. Kyruus Senior Vice President of Market Solutions Travis Moore said this approach helps build patient loyalty.

Even when patients don't schedule appointments online, their waits can be reduced. “Patients dislike waits of an uncertain duration, waits that are not explained to them, and waits they perceive as unfair,” said Mike Burke, CEO of Clockwise.MD.

More than 20% of the urgent-care market and some large providers, such as Geisinger Health System and Carolinas HealthCare System, use Clockwise.MD software for online self-scheduling. It also offers virtual queues which patients can check online to avoid long waits in providers' waiting rooms. “By managing the wait experience effectively, we substantially improve not only the patient's experience but the facility's throughput,” Burke said.

Large hospital systems aren't the only ones offering online booking. Retail clinics are also giving patients ways to schedule appointments and monitor waiting times before leaving the house.

The goals are the same: reducing friction for patients. “Once they get to your website, you need to make it easy for them to find the provider they're looking for, and then offer interactive calls to scheduling,” Moore said. “It's an expectation. You just got off Amazon—this instant gratification is the world we live in.”

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