I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of an Internet junkie, and I’m passionate about using the very latest technologies when it comes to running my practice. For the last few years I’ve been helping other practice owners and eyecare professionals (ECPs) more effectively build their businesses, with a special emphasis on Internet-based tools and communication systems.
Like me, you were probably trained to take care of patients, to help people, and to be an advocate for healthy vision. But how many of us were trained in the best ways to use technology to run our practices? Let’s face it. While the rest of the world seems to have embraced the Internet as an essential part of doing business, many in our profession have been a bit slow to catch on.
After all, the old ways are fine—or are they?
If you haven’t investigated some of the latest Internet-based tools for managing your practice, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The Internet is filled with Web portals, online tools, and Internet-based communications services, all designed to streamline your business processes and give you more time to do what you love to do—take care of your patients.
This guide is intended to show you how to use the Internet to improve your overall practice through more efficient processes.
Here we’ll focus on three key areas in which the Internet can enhance your existing processes:
Purchasing, scheduling, billing, and accounting
Expanding the reach of your marketing efforts, appealing to new and existing patients, and establishing yourself as a subject matter expert
Building and cultivating meaningful relationships with your patients.
Convinced? Let’s take a look at some specifics.
Commerce: Business Basics Redefined
One of the biggest improvements you can make in your overall efficiency is to implement online ordering. There are several Web portals out there that offer this capability. Of these online tools, VisionWeb and Eyefinity are among the most commonly used. Each offers its own benefits, but both can be used to streamline your ordering process.
Here are just a few of the benefits of online ordering. First, purchasing online allows you to order from all of your suppliers via a single Web site, 24 hours a day, and orders placed online can be processed more quickly than those that are phoned or faxed in. This means faster turnaround for your patients. A definite win-win!
Furthermore, online orders can be checked for accuracy, reducing the potential for errors and limiting time-consuming phone calls. In some cases you can even upload a trace file to your spectacle lens orders to ensure the most accurate processing.
Keeping track of your orders is made simpler with online order tracking, so you’ll always know when and what you ordered and when you can expect it to arrive.
Billing and Accounting
Handling the financial aspects of your business can also be dramatically simplified by using Internet-based tools. In fact, some of the online ordering services also provide patient and insurance billing capabilities (as well as online scheduling), making them powerful, all-in-one tools for managing your entire practice.
Using these tools, you can submit your insurance claims online, from a single Web site, to thousands of payers. With VisionWeb, for example, your staff can simply upload claim files and send them off. Because reimbursement information is available online, you can track your claims’ status and receive monthly reports.
Your online service can also allow your staff to access your patients’ eligibility and authorizations instantly, reducing your staff’s phone time and streamlining the verification process. Patient billing can also be streamlined by accessing EOBs online rather than relying on snail mail.
Although it’s not the newest form of technology, don’t overlook online banking as a way to cut down on paperwork and improve efficiency. Many online accounting systems integrate seamlessly with your bank’s online services, allowing you to pay bills and manage your bank accounts with just a few extra clicks.
Think there’s no way to relieve the inherent “clunkiness” of appointment scheduling? You may be surprised. Online appointment systems such as Eppointments and 4PatientCare can dramatically decrease your staff’s phone time, add convenience and simplicity for your patients, and help to set your practice apart from the competition.
How many patients wait too long to schedule their appointments because they simply “never get around to it?” Online scheduling allows your patients to set their appointments quickly and efficiently, any time of day, without waiting to speak with a staff member or taking time out of their work day. Because online scheduling is completely integrated with your in-office scheduling process, patients have access to up-to-the-minute information about available appointment times.
This means improved convenience for existing patients, added appeal to new patients—and more appointments for you! Once appointments have been scheduled, online appointment systems can also be used to send appointment reminders and to capture patient information online, reducing paperwork for both your patients and your staff.
The benefits don’t stop once the patient is in your office. Eppointments, for example, is also an effective tool for checking patients in and out. It can even help you keep track of your patients’ insurance information and streamline the verification process.
You can also use online scheduling tools to manage your in-house resources. There are a number of Internet-based tools that act as online time clocks, and you can post your office manual online or utilize project management tools to help manage your employees’ task lists and improve accountability.
Communication: Reaching Out, Staying in Touch
In today’s Internet-savvy environment, your Web site is perhaps your most important marketing tool. But so many eye doctors continue to rely on expensive Yellow Pages ads to bring in patients.
Don’t waste your money!
When done correctly, your Web site can be an incredibly powerful tool, not only for introducing yourself and your practice but also for reaching out to new markets, communicating with your existing patients, and establishing yourself as an expert in your field.
Consider the benefits of a good Web site over a print ad:
Better, More Valuable Content
(After all, how much can you say about your practice in a 4″ x 2″ ad?)
Timeliness and Relevance
(Update your Web site any time you want!)
It’s true. A Web site is more cost effective than a print ad — by a long shot.
Once your Web site is up and running, you can expect to pay just a modest hosting fee every month. You’re completely free from size, color, or media limitations, and because your Web site can easily be updated, it’s the perfect way to announce upcoming events and promotions.
Creating Your Web Site
Great Web design isn’t rocket science. With a good designer and a few key elements—your contact information, some carefully chosen keywords, and some high-value content—you can be up and running in no time.
But if you want to keep it simple and avoid hiring a professional designer, there are online services to make setting up your Web site easier. PhysicianWebPages, Easy Practice Sites, EyeCarePro.Net, and Optometry.net are just some of the examples of the services that offer custom Web sites for doctors’ offices that include hosting, e-mail accounts, and even integration with your online scheduling tool.
Speaking of e-mail, if you don’t already capture your patients’ e-mail addresses, it’s time to start. Let your patients know that you will be periodically sending them news about eye health matters and your practice. You’ll be surprised how readily they’ll provide their addresses.
As your e-mail list grows, you can use it (sparingly and considerately, of course) to announce upcoming events such as screenings, seminars, and trunk shows.
Once you’ve built a substantial mailing list, it’s a great idea to develop an opt-in e-zine (online or e-mailed magazine) which can be used to remind your patients about the importance of checkups, provide eyecare tips, and generally offer valuable, free information as a way to build customer loyalty.
If you’re like most everyone else in the world, telephone and e-mail are your most important forms of business communication.
Like online scheduling, e-mail can be used to reduce your staff’s phone time and provide your patients with another communication channel. If you use your e-mail accounts wisely, you can improve your staff’s response time and enhance customer service.
In order to ensure a quick response and to avoid “lost” e-mail messages, you can create a central e-mail account that is routed to multiple members of your staff. Or you can set up an e-mail-based “Ask the Doctor” option on your Web site as a quick and easy way for your patients to contact you with their routine questions.
Phoning Over the Internet
Another interesting way to use the Internet is to swap your landline for a Voice Over IP (VOIP) system. Much less expensive and virtually indistinguishable from landlines from a caller’s perspective, VOIP systems have gotten quite robust in the last few years.
Many VOIP systems include multiple extension capability, call routing (with easy online set-up), and voicemail. But some of the most sophisticated even include automated appointment reminder calls and 24-hour appointment confirmation/canceling options.
You can even utilize text messaging to send appointment reminders. But be sure to get your patients’ permission first! Many people have to pay for their incoming text messages and wouldn’t appreciate a surprise text from their eye doctor.
Of course, the Internet can also be a great source of information for ECPs. E-mail newsletters, blogs, Web sites, Webinars, and interactive virtual events are just some of the formats in which you can obtain valuable, up-to-the-minute information on everything from new products to new diagnostic and therapeutic techniques. VisionWeb alone offers its members online continuing education courses, a news and information service, and e-mail newsletters and updates. Similar information is also available from Web sites such as TotallyOptical.com and The Optical Vision Site.
Community: Relationships That Work
According to a recent TotallyOptical.com poll, half of the ECPs who responded do not think social media is important to their business. While this might have been true a few short years ago, you’re putting your business at risk if you continue to ignore what communication channels your patient base is using.
Two of the fastest growing social media networks are Facebook and Twitter. With more than 300 million active users, Facebook has become the platform of choice to start with for those ECPs new to the social media realm.
Be aware when creating a business account on Facebook, you must set up a fan page. This allows you to actively connect with your patients and keep them updated on what’s new. While it’s of course a great idea to talk about your qualifications as an ECP and your practice capabilities, this shouldn’t dominate what is featured on Facebook. In order to effectively promote your business, you have to be viewed as an expert to your patients.
This can be done by becoming a channel of eyecare information—talk about eyecare topics such as glaucoma education, the importance of protection against ultra-violet radiation for children, presbyopic issues, or even provide advice on how to cope with a family member with an eye disease. While it’s useful for patients to know there’s a new product line or a coupon online, the more important side of having a social media presence is being known as a resource your patients can rely on.
To tweet or not to tweet—a lot of ECPs are wondering if they should be using Twitter. This can be a great tool for ECPs to see if anyone is talking about them or their practice. It’s conceivable to have a patient walk out of your office and tweet that she had a terrible experience. As a result, many businesses are finding that listening on the service and reacting appropriately leads to happier customers, passionate advocates, key product improvements, and more sales.
But what about jumping in and actively tweeting? If you are trying to decide if Twitter is right for your business, take into account that it is time consuming to maintain for a typically much smaller audience base. If you do decide to tweet, remember, tweets should center on your business, not what you’re doing this weekend. While you do have to show a bit of your personality, too much in your tweets can be slightly off-putting to your patients.
MySpace, YouTube and LinkedIn
Around for almost six years, MySpace still remains a great option for your business. You can participate in one of MySpace’s health forums or start your own group on eyecare or eyewear trends to answer patient questions and also to connect with other professionals.
Another tool to connect with patients is YouTube. People are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and sharing with their friends and colleagues. Use YouTube for patient testimonials, eyecare education, visually showcasing the services your practice provides, etc. You can also embed your YouTube video into your Facebook and MySpace accounts.
Though LinkedIn isn’t a platform used to connect with patients, it does provide a great resource for making professional connections. According to the company, LinkedIn has over 48 million members around the world representing 170 industries. You can find, be introduced to, and collaborate with qualified professionals for support and ideas on how to promote a practice and eye health. Find and be introduced to service providers, gather data, solve problems, gain new insights from discussions, and even post and distribute job listings.
Whether you are connecting with patients or colleagues, social media is a business tool you can’t afford to ignore any longer.
“Give Before You Take”
Although at first glance it may seem like an entirely impersonal medium, the Internet can be used quite effectively to establish better, more meaningful relationships with your patients and your community.
I like to say that you have to “give before you take” when it comes to Internet-based communications. Along with acting as a patient portal and virtual calling card, your Web site can also be used to provide your patients and the online community at large with important educational materials. Not only will this improve your search engine ranking (and it will), it will also establish you as a trustworthy professional dedicated to serving your patients’ needs, both in the office and out of the office.
The same goes for your e-zine or email-based patient communications. By offering valuable, free information on a regular basis, you’re providing a reason for patients to come back to you and to your Web site—and you’re building the kind of word-of-mouth buzz that’s so important to growing your practice.
You can also use your Web site to pose questions, gather feedback, and reach out to your community. In short, the possibilities are endless. Sure, there are disadvantages to communicating online. You may sacrifice a bit of the “personal touch” in exchange for a wider reach and increased efficiency. But, ultimately, an efficiently run office is an office in which you and your staff are more relaxed, more flexible, and better able to do what’s most important—focus on your patients.
by Jeff Lewis, OD