A back-to-school checklist to educate patients about your office

Deb Beaulieu

Deb Beaulieu

School is back in session, and parents everywhere are opening backpacks with papers to sign, policies to learn and miscellaneous "friendly reminders" via Post-It. For those of us new to the school-age scene, it's a lot to take in. We must be trained, like second-string circus animals, to pack the right snacks and return the correct folder and follow the appropriate traffic pattern during drop-off and pick-up. Teachers, wise with experience, know that at some point, even the most organized parent will falter. And that is why they adhere a "Tomorrow is picture day!" sticker directly to your child just to be sure it doesn't conflict with, "Fine, wear your pajamas/Halloween costume/breakfast in your hair."

But as much as I poke fun at the elaborateness involved in pulling off the production that is half-day kindergarten, I know that the policies and, most of all, communication, are essential in keeping my child safe and well-positioned to get the most benefit out of being in school.

Your patients--in order to get the best care you can provide and help keep the office running smoothly--need a similar primer on their role and responsibilities as a member of your practice. You have an employee handbook, right? So why not create an informative (and even fun) handbook for your patients? Some of you may already do this, but I've yet to see any physician practice provide a resource quite like what I'm envisioning.

If such a handbook existed for the practices that my family visit, I'd love for it to include the following information:

  • Hours of operation. Include any evening, weekend and holiday hours and exceptions. If your practice has an unusual schedule or hosts regular events, consider providing a full-year calendar that spells it all out.
  • Phone-tree shortcuts. For instance, don't make me listen all the way up to "5" to learn that's the button to press to get a referral. List all of the options on a piece of paper, and I promise you I'll have it handy when I call. List the information (e.g., my name, number, problem, health plan) I'll need to have ready when I leave a message for each given mailbox.
  • Your rescheduling/cancellation policy. Most practices require at least 24 hours notice to change or cancel an appointment. What, if any, is the penalty for not showing? Is it different on the first offense? Third? What is the best method to reschedule? Do you have a portal? (If so, dedicate another page of your handbook to information about what it does and how to sign up.) If I call, what number can I push right away to get the appropriate contact person?
  • Payment information. Don't just tell me that my payment is expected at the time of visit. Define what you may be collecting (i.e., copay, coinsurance, deductible, past balance) and the forms of payment you take (i.e., cash, check, charge). If applicable, include pages describing your credit card or hardship policies. List the best number or email address to direct any billing questions.
  • A sample statement. For the instances you might send a bill, provide a graphic tour so I won't tie up your phone lines with simple questions.
  • What my appointment time actually means. If you like patients to come in 10 minutes early to fill out paperwork or simply prevent delays, a best practice is to set the patient's appointment time for exactly when you want his or her body to come through your front door, even if that means the doctor's schedule may look slightly different. But if that doesn't work for you, explain how early they should arrive--and whether this is different for a physical versus sick visit. While you're at it, remind me to bring my insurance card, picture ID (if you require it), copay and any forms I can print from your website and fill out at home.
  • GPS-friendly directions. Sure, include a map and narrative directions, including landmarks, for people who still navigate this way. For the other 80 percent, make sure you provide a street address that your average Garmin or TomTom will recognize. Include any necessary details about parking here, as well.
  • FAQs. Let your staff help compile this page. Most of the information may be covered in other areas of your handbook, but list it together here anyway, with the page number for the full related entry.
  • Who's who. If your practice is very large, this might not be feasible. But if you can list and provide photos of your cast of characters (with phone extensions and/or email addresses, if you like), go for it. People like to put names with faces so they don't feel clueless on whether the person greeting them at the desk is or isn't the same staffer they just spoke to on the phone. If your turnover is too high to list your staff on a semi-static document such as this, then that's a clue into another problem.
  • Links and resources. If your practice has a website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter profile or all of the above, provide the URLs, along with those of any relevant community resources. Of course, include a link to download an electronic copy of the document.

Have any of you tried giving patients a handbook to your practice? What was the response? Is there anything to the list that you would add or change? As always, thanks in advance for your feedback! - Deb (@PracticeMgt)