Physical therapy services are in high demand—so much so that, during the most recent Graham Sessions, over half the audience raised their hands when asked whether they have a patient waitlist for their practice. And while it’s great that more patients are seeking out PT, those waitlists can quickly become a problem if they grow too long, lack feedback loops, and become a permanent fixture of your front office. As I mentioned in this blog post, I’ve spoken with more than a few WebPT Members who said that they have wait times of over 30 days for waitlisted patients—mainly for specialty services. And while I know those clinics are doing their utmost to treat as many patients as they can within the boundaries of the current systems, it’s still an unacceptable amount of time for patients to wait for the care they need. Moreover, it’s hurting our cause at a time when we’re trying to advocate the “PT first” approach for more patients.
It’s not a leap to connect these growing waitlists to our industry-wide staffing shortages; unfortunately, we’re not going to solve those particular problems overnight. But, with some creativity—and a bit of technology—we can shrink those waitlists to keep patients engaged and on a path to recovery. With that in mind, here are a few strategies to help better manage that growing waitlist and not lose those new patients who want to get in to see you.
Stay in touch with patients from the start.
Let’s face it, no one wants to be put on a waitlist. That’s why if a patient is willing to wait for your services, you should treat them like a VIP from the start. First impressions are very important, and clear, direct communication is a must. Keep patients apprised of the approximate expected wait times and the waitlist rules of prioritization. They’ll appreciate the honesty, be able to plan accordingly, and most importantly, remember your excellent service.
To take it a step further, you could also recommend alternative locations for the patient to receive treatment, provided they have availability, and the patient is willing and/or able to commute. These alternate locations can be within your company or with revenue-sharing partners who you have an agreement with for sharing patients when waitlists are needed. It might not be ideal, but look at it this way: Would you rather a patient get treatment by another physical therapist, or seek an alternative path (i.e., massage, personal training, unnecessary surgical interventions, or opioids)? If we are collectively trying to impact the 90% problem, then let’s work cooperatively for the greater good of the profession and ultimately, the patient.
Use the waiting period to your advantage.
The silver lining to a waiting list is that it provides the chance to proactively prepare for a patient’s eventual visit once a spot does open up, ensuring a smoother scheduling process in the long run. These actions include:
- Transparently sharing the average wait time so that they can make a choice on whether they want to be placed on the waitlist.
- Collecting as much information as possible prior to putting them on a waitlist to streamline their intake, including:
- Full name;
- Contact information (phone and email) and preferred contact method;
- Availability for appointments (days of the week, times of day);
- Reasons for seeking treatment;
- Insurance information;
- Any preferred provider demographics (i.e., gender, age, race, etc.);
- Name of preferred provider, if applicable; and
- Who referred them, (if applicable).
- Performing pre-visit insurance authorizations. If the wait period is longer than four weeks, make sure to run the insurance verification process again prior to seeing the patient to validate that no insurance changes have been made during that time.
- Taking the extra time to let patients know what to expect from their PT visit.
- Building out email campaigns to welcome them to your practice and to deliver relevant content specific to a patient’s injury or condition to keep them engaged. This is also a great way to update patients when their spot on the waitlist has changed.
- Auditing your waitlist to keep it as up to date as possible.
Keep checking in periodically.
Your waitlist isn’t something you can set and forget. Outreach to waitlisted patients should be an ongoing process for as long as it takes to get them on the schedule—whether it’s checking to see if they still need an appointment or to provide updates on their waitlist position. Check-ins are also a great way to showcase your clinic, educate patients on their diagnosis, and share other services you provide. Frequent touchpoints let patients know you haven’t forgotten about them and are working hard to get them into treatment as soon as possible.
Staying in touch with your waitlist will be easier if you establish patients’ preferred communication methods up front, which goes back to the proactive measures you can—and should be taking—mentioned above. Keep in mind that calls might not work for many patients, especially for those at the office during working hours. And don’t assume that emails and texts are out of the question for older patients; WebPT and Clinicient’s PT Patient Experience Report found that text was the top choice for appointment reminders for all patients—and that older patients are far more comfortable with tech than they get credit for.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that despite your valiant attempts to continue to engage patients placed on a waitlist, the majority will seek care elsewhere.
Create a workflow to organize patients.
Having a set process for waitlist management prior to starting one is key. As previously mentioned, collecting information on the relative urgency of a patient’s condition as well as their scheduling preferences during the intake process is essential to prioritizing patients when an appointment opens.
Most patients will have preferred times of day or days of the week for their appointments. But based upon the needs of the patient, you should be asking patients if they can take the first available appointment in order to get the care they need and the improved outcome they want. To that end, priority levels for each patient based on the relative severity of their injury are essential to assign as you’re placing them on the waitlist. Once you’ve scheduled the most critical patients, you can use differing priority levels to fill out the rest of the list—while maintaining a first-come, first-served mentality front of mind.
Make necessary operational changes.
Based upon length or duration of the waitlist, you may want to consider making some changes to the schedule—or even increase your staffing, at least temporarily. Depending on your needs, hiring another therapist, utilizing a PRN therapist to get through the busy period, or simply adjusting your current therapists’ schedules to accommodate high request scheduling times can help to alleviate the scheduling log jam.
Provide adequate training to your staff.
Consistent training across all front office and provider functions on how to add new patients to the waitlist and how to prioritize and match patients with appointments is critical in providing an outstanding patient experience. If a waitlist is required, having a well-maintained one is essential to patient retention. With the right processes in place, you can ensure waitlisted patients aren’t slipping through the cracks.
Have the right marketing strategy.
I have talked about the importance of marketing your practice many times as a key referral source, especially for direct access patients. But once your schedules are consistently full, the right marketing strategy is important to maintaining a manageable waitlist. Trying to reach anyone and everyone looking for PT services might make sense when you’re starting out, but as the practice grows, having the ability to dial up or down on certain types of referrals is critical to maintaining more of a balance among your therapists’ schedules—especially those seeing specialty patients.
Use software to make waitlist management easy.
If you want to effectively manage your waitlist, spreadsheets, and written lists to track patients aren’t going to cut it anymore. Deploying the right software can make it easy to review and reference patient lists and automate communication with patients when a spot opens on the schedule. Better yet, your scheduling software functionality should include easily creating a patient waitlist, visibility into appointment availability, and preferred appointment times, while all being managed from one platform.
With the escalating demand for physical therapy services and the current shortage of PTs, we’re going to have to get creative—and more efficient—with managing waitlists. Other options such as screening days, virtual visits, and reciprocal referral partnerships between PT practices will be critical for our industry to continue to focus on getting the patients the care that they need faster and not losing the opportunity for them to experience the value of our care. In the meantime, we must keep patients engaged and ready for treatment as soon as the opportunity arises by exercising excellence in waitlist management with the use of technology.