As the 2017-18 flu season winds down, it’s become clear that it was one for the record books. With the onset coming early and strong, emergency departments, primary care physicians, and urgent care clinics all over the country were overrun with patients waiting in line to see a doctor.
While this had a negative impact on a large portion of the U.S. population, anyone involved in the on-demand healthcare space knows that the flu season and resulting increase in patient volume tends to feed the business for the remainder of the year. While other services like back-to-school physicals, strep throat, and seasonal allergies are important, nothing can make or break the success of an urgent care clinic quite like a banner flu season.
The bad news is forecasting for flu season is extremely difficult. Clinics may believe it will be long and robust, but at the same time, it could very well be short-lived and uneventful. While clinics wish illness on no one, the length and severity of the flu season will drive many business decisions throughout the year. The big question for many who are new to running and operating an urgent care clinic is how to continue being profitable during a slow flu season in a very competitive market.
The good news is that even when business is ebbing instead of flowing, there are eight key tips urgent care clinics can follow to optimize revenue and remain profitable.
1. Improve RCM
Effective revenue cycle management is key to staying profitable. With proper training and oversight, especially at the front desk, clinics can more effectively manage their revenue cycle.
First, be sure the right person is put in this important position, and then require training – not just on how to greet visitors – but how to verify insurance coverage making sure it’s active. With real-time verification (RTV), you’ll not only verify coverage, but can determine patient responsibility from the outset, and ask for this percentage of the charge before the patient leaves the clinic. The more that’s collected at the time of the visit, the less time and energy that will be required during the billing process.
In addition, be sure everyone that touches a patient record understands the importance of accuracy, from patient registration and charting to E/M coding. Incorrect or incomplete documentation habits lead to poor coding, under-coding resulting in a loss of revenue, and up-coding which can initiate audits. Inaccurate coding can necessitate resubmission of claims that costs your clinic time and money.
2. Leverage technology
Like it or not, technology is integral to the healthcare system. There are two choices: Use it to your advantage, or fight it all the way. The second option really isn’t viable if you want to reduce waste and increase accuracy.
For example, offering online appointments can make a clinic far more accessible to savvy online healthcare consumers as well as more traditional patients who are increasingly going to the web to find providers.
A prudent second step is sending a quick text-based survey to patients promptly after their visit to assess patient satisfaction. This short survey can help you calculate your Net Promoter Score (NPS) and respond to customers quickly when they aren’t happy with their visit.
When it comes to billing, speed up payment processing by offering electronic payment to patients. This enables quick bill pay at the time of visit and after statements for remaining charges are sent to patients. Promoting paying by credit or debit card is one way to keep money flowing back into the practice.
3. Make yourself available
Urgent care, by design, exists for patients when traditional healthcare clinics are closed or too busy to fit them in. While it may seem like a simple solution, having more patients generally translates to more revenue. Extending hours to open earlier, close later, and stay open on weekends or holidays can help get more patients through the door.
While being physically available is important, also making your clinic available for services online is becoming a necessity. By offering new technology like telemedicine, you’ll expand your service area, offer additional convenience to patients who just need a simple follow-up, and even balance patient load between multiple clinics during busy times of the year like cold and flu season.
4. Negotiate everything
As a business owner/operator, it’s important to understand that while some costs are fixed, others are negotiable. Be proactive and negotiate everything possible, from cleaning services and office supplies, to leases and marketing costs. It can be surprising how much the savings add up following negotiation, and all those savings help increase overall profitability. For example, when possible and if the price is right:
Join buying groups or networks to buy supplies in bulk for a lower cost
Print various marketing materials all at once to get better pricing from print shops
Compare lease prices and approach your landlord or leasing company with a proposal for leasing space or equipment instead of waiting to be told the cost
5. Consolidate staff
Inadequate staffing can be a nightmare for urgent cares, but overstaffing has a detrimental effect on profitability. To be sure there is a just-right-sized staff on duty, it’s important to take a look at the data.
First, review visit volumes week-to-week, comparing peak times versus slow times to find any patterns that might help make coverage decisions. Next, take a step back and look at year-over-year volume to identify seasonal trends. Armed with the right data, you can be sure your scheduling is on-target.
Lastly, be sure to identify members of the staff who are more readily available on short notice, and those who don’t mind going home when business is slow. Adding a few people with more flexibility to your staff provides some additional wiggle room when predictions turn out to be inaccurate.
6. Add service lines
Once an urgent care clinic is established and running smoothly, it’s important to think about adding a new service line or two. Occupational medicine (OccMed) is currently the go-to add-on, and is a smart choice because it helps balance the workflow throughout the year. OccMed provides a steady stream of patients for lab testing, Workers’ Comp and all other workplace-related medicine, can be a source of new patients, and serves a real need in the community.
Increasingly, urgent cares are adding secondary service lines such as travel medicine, sports medicine and concussion screening.
7. Engage and retain patients
The urgent care industry arose out of a need for on-demand healthcare for patients who couldn’t – or didn’t want to – wait for days to see their primary care doctor, and as a valuable and low-cost alternative to the ER. By design, many patients follow up with their primary care physician. As ironic as it may seem, this is the very reason it’s important to provide the best healthcare experience possible. Patients must be left with a memorable and positive first impression so they return when they find themselves in need of an urgent care again, and recommend the clinic to friends and family.
Engagement is one of the keys to retaining patients, building relationships, and increasing loyalty and revenue over time. Engaging with patients lets them know they’re more than just a number – that you care about them and their health. To facilitate engagement, implementing tools like online check-in makes urgent care access easy, flexible, and convenient for on-demand consumers.
Text messaging is another opportunity to connect with patients before the visit, which lets you remind them of their appointment and alert them to any delays. This allows them to adjust their schedule when necessary, and saves them from spending too much time in the waiting room. What’s more, it lets them know both the doctor and clinic understand their time is valuable.
8. Increase your presence online and in the community
Perception can make or break an urgent care, and it begins in the community. Simply put, be sure the location is convenient, easy to see from the street, and looks inviting inside and out.
However, perception also reaches beyond curb appeal. It’s important to think of your website as a second “location” and send the same inviting message on the screen when people find you online. Be sure your website is easy to navigate, with links to online check-in, social networks such as Facebook, and service review sites like Yelp. Online presence can also help build your visit volume – and revenue – by attracting new patients and allowing them to be your best marketers.
In the urgent care industry, visit volume fluctuates with the season. During the expected “down time” following the 2017-18 flu season, the best way to stay on track is to focus on operational processes and strategies, making adjustments and always delivering the best on-demand care experience for patients.
Monte Sandler is the Executive Vice President of Revenue Cycle Management at DocuTAP, a dynamic HIT company and provider of revenue cycle management (RCM) services, electronic medical records (EMR) and practice management (PM) software for urgent care clinics.