When a patient fails to show up for his appointment, your reaction may run the gamut from elation to anger or land somewhere on the spectrum between concern and self-doubt. If you are overbooked and running behind with a waiting room that looks like a bus station at rush hour, an unexpectedly unfilled appointment slot can provide a much needed but all too brief respite. However, if the patient who no-shows is someone whom you have been worried about, you may wonder if he has slipped further into a debilitating depression. Or maybe he found a physician that he prefers?
If you keep your finger on the economic pulse of your practice, you know that the empty slot created when a patient no-shows is valuable time that is not generating any income. Your practice administrator may have sent a practice-wide email expressing concern about what she feels is an unacceptably high and economically unsustainable no-show rate. She already may have replaced your antiquated system using postcards and personal phone call reminders with preprogrammed emails and robo-calls.
If despite these high tech targeted reminders your no-show rate continues to be unacceptably high, the problem may be with how and when your office schedules appointments. When a parent or older patient calls with what she feels is an urgent or time-sensitive complaint, is she offered an appointment that satisfies her sense of urgency? She may agree to make an appointment but as soon as she hangs up may begin searching for another source of care and neglect to cancel the appointment with you when she finds a more timely response.
On the other hand, the patient’s problem may have resolved itself. With this in mind, I asked our receptionists to not make next-day appointments for a child with ear pain if for whatever reason the child was unable to come in for a same-day appointment. I knew from experience that ear pain often resolved and appointments weren’t kept or parents would cancel at the last minute. However, we guaranteed that if the child’s pain persisted we would see them immediately in the morning.
You may be muttering to yourself that you can’t possibly give every patient an appointment as soon as they would like to be seen. True. But aren’t there some patients who could be well served by a quick same-day appointment to allay their fear and sketch out a starting point for diagnosis and management at a later visit? A skillful and calming appointment secretary or nurse may be able to provide the same level of reassurance. But sometimes a short office visit is a more effective and efficient way to depressurize the situation and avoid a longer appointment that has a high likelihood of being no-showed or canceled.
Finally, are you or other members of your group in the habit of making follow-up appointments for problems that probably don’t require follow up? Most patients have an excellent sense when a follow-up appointment is unnecessary and are likely to cancel at the last minute or no-show. They may have had more than one experience in which they took off time from work and traveled 20 miles for a 3-minute visit that didn’t seem worth the effort. A quick phone call or two from you or your staff may be a better way to make sure things are going in the right direction and avoid the cost and frustration of a no-show.
The bottom line is that no-shows happen but when appointments are thoughtfully made the patients are more likely to keep them.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at.