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Why online scheduling should be the new normal

July 3, 2021
Your patients should be able to schedule appointments with your office online—its advantages far outweigh any disadvantages you may have heard about.

“New normal,” along with “unprecedented times” and "you’re on mute," became the most overused phrases of 2020. Adaptability is now a mandatory business competency, and all of us made changes in our practices last year to keep our patients and employees safe. While I don't anticipate temperature checks, elbow bumps, and parking lot check-ins to become permanent parts of our patient experience, I expect some changes will stick. I hope that “new normal” means our practices become more patient-centric by leveraging technology to create effortless interactions and better patient experiences.

People are accustomed to making restaurant reservations, ordering groceries, checking in on planes, and making bank deposits on their phones. A visit to a dentist should not be the exception. Patients expect immediate access to information when looking for a provider, and they expect this information to be accessible on mobile devices. They also want the convenience of real-time self-scheduling.

You might have reservations about implementing online scheduling in your practice. Here are six reasons for considering it today. 

  1. You’ll get more new patients.
  2. You’ll keep your appointment book full.
  3. You’ll save the team time by reducing call volume and interruptions.
  4. You’ll be able to quickly fill last-minute openings.
  5. You’ll reduce broken appointments.
  6. You’ll build lasting patient relationships

Get more new patients

In 1996, Travelocity became the first agency to allow consumers make travel accommodations in real-time via the Travelocity website, and this was quickly followed by Expedia. OpenTable, an app that allows consumers to make restaurant reservations from their smartphones, was founded in 1998. Yet, a quarter of a century later, 85% of all dental appointments are still scheduled with a phone call.

According to a study by Healthgrades, 83% of consumers make reservations online for travel and restaurants, and 80% said they would prefer to make their health-care appointments online.1 As many as 35% of respondents stated that scheduling appointments online with their health-care providers is a major factor when choosing between seemingly comparable options.1

With only 15% of all dental appointments made online now, this opens up a tremendous opportunity to differentiate your practice from the competition and attract more new patients.1 According to Becker's Hospital Review, a leading source of content for the health-care industry, 43% of patients look for doctors and dentists after hours.2 When your practice closes and your team goes home, potential patients also leave work, go home, have dinner, put their kids to bed, and then have time to look for a dentist and book an appointment. When you provide the convenience of real-time online scheduling on your website, you will not only stand out among other dentists in your area, but you’ll become the dentist of choice for busy professionals and overscheduled parents. 

Adding links for your real-time online scheduling to Yelp, Google, Facebook, and other social media sites will drastically increase the number of new patients coming to your practice. According to a study by BrightLocal, 79% of consumers trust online reviews as much as a personal referral.3 Many potential patients check out Yelp or Google reviews before for an appointment. Being able to schedule an appointment with a few clicks on Yelp, Facebook, or your website (instead of waiting for the next business day to call the office) might be the difference between someone choosing your practice instead of the dentist next door. 

Keep your appointment book full

The study by Healthgrades found that doctors who offer both online scheduling and a call center scheduled 24% more appointments than practices that only book by phone.1 Online scheduling is not just for new patients: adding a "schedule now" link to continuous care emails and text reminders will keep your hygiene chairs full. Our patients are busy. It's often a challenge for them to get everything checked off their to-do lists and still remember to call the dentist during office hours.

You might worry that allowing patients to schedule in real-time will cause the practice to lose control of the schedule. While that's a valid concern with legacy systems, today’s well-designed self-scheduling software allows practices to customize and control what types of appointments patients can schedule and where they fit on the schedule. A fully integrated online scheduling system will have access to your patients' demographic and insurance information and allow them to set an appointment on the correct date and with the fewest clicks possible. 

Save team's time by reducing call volume and interruptions

Online scheduling will open time for your team by reducing the number of inbound calls and missed appointments. According to CallTracker return on investment data, in a typical dental practice, 33% of all inbound calls from marketing sources go to voicemail. Sadly, 87% of potential new patients who reach voicemail do not leave a message or schedule an appointment.4 This is a massive waste of your marketing dollars, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. I heard someone say that scheduling coordinators need to be like octopuses—with a giant head and eight arms—to accomplish everything and greet everyone at the front desk.

While patients open our recall reminder emails or look for a new dentist at all hours, most practices answer their phones only during business hours. Playing phone tag and rescheduling appointments places an unnecessary burden on the team and is inconvenient for patients. 

Fill last-minute openings quickly

A typical dental practice receives a fair number of last-minute cancellations, so your team is probably spending time trying to fill last-minute openings in your appointment book. You might be happy to learn that 40% of all appointments made online are for the same or the following day, which significantly reduces the need for your team to dial for dollars and try to fill cancellations.2

Reduce broken appointments

Many of you believe that making it easy for patients to schedule appointments online makes it even easier for them to cancel, especially last minute. It's a valid concern, but the data tells a different story. A study published in The Gerontologist, found that the no-show rate significantly declined when patients scheduled their appointments online.5 The Becker’s study on digital scheduling confirmed that self-scheduling followed with automated text confirmations dropped the no-show rate by 17%.2

This might seem counterintuitive because if patients can easily schedule or cancel online, what incentives do they have to keep their appointments? Many reasons why patients cancel appointments, such as fear, cost, loss of trust, lack of urgency, or simple forgetfulness, don't have anything to do with how hard or easy it is to schedule or cancel an appointment. Patients who have reservations about treatment will find a way to cancel. Real-time online scheduling reduces cancellations because it makes it easier for patients who want to come in to find an appointment time that fits into their busy lives. Instead of feeling pressure to choose a time offered by a rushed scheduling coordinator, patients can find a time as they check their calendar, consult with their spouse, and reference their children’s activities schedules. 

If that doesn't sound convincing enough, research shows that when patients make an appointment themselves, they’re almost 9% more likely to keep that commitment.6 According to Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, we can use the power of active commitment to lower the number of broken appointments. In one study, the team reduced no-shows by 9% by changing just one thing—they gave blank appointment cards to patients and had them write down the date and time themselves. One of Cialdini's principles of persuasion is the principle of consistency, which means that people feel good about being consistent with their decisions and they’ll go out of their way to honor those commitments. When they book their appointments online, they feel compelled to honor their commitment. 

Build lasting relationships

As if you need any more reasons to implement real-time online scheduling, consider how this service can impact your relationships with your patients. When patients can schedule their appointments, pay their bills, and access their health records online, they don't just have a better experience; they take greater ownership of their health. Increased engagement translates into fewer missed appointments, better clinical outcomes, and increased revenues. It's a win-win. 

As we seek ways to improve patient experiences and increase patient engagement, real-time online scheduling is a sure way to differentiate ourselves and create favorable first impressions and lasting relationships.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the July 2021 print edition of Dental Economics.


1.Bremer M, Kadish B. Assessing online scheduling as an emerging trend in scheduling physician appointment. Healthgrades. March 2017. https://hs.healthgrades.com/insights/assessing-online-scheduling-as-an-emerging-trend-in-scheduling-physician-appointments

2. Maheshwari P. Patient access and engagement insights from two million appointments. Beckers Hospital Review.  May 31, 2017. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/healthcare-information-technology/patient-access-and-engagement-insights-from-two-million-appointments.html

3. Local consumer review survey. BrightLocal. December 9, 2020. https://www.brightlocal.com/research/local-consumer-review-survey/?SSAID=314743&SSCID=41k5_7wow4

4. Phelps C. Data for dentists: How hard facts can help you grow your practice. Dr Phelps Helps. August 24, 2016. https://www.drphelpshelps.com/data-for-dentists-how-hard-facts-can-help-you-grow-your-practice/

5. MacLeod KE, Ragland DR, Prohaska TR, Smith ML, Irmiter C, Sanariano WA. Missed or delayed medical care appointments by older users of nonemergency medical transportation. The Gerontologist. 2015;55(6):1026–1037. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnu002

6. Martin SJ, Bassi S, Dunbar-Rees R. Commitments, norms, and custard creams—a social influence approach to reducing did not attends (DNAs). J R Soc Med. 2012;105(3):101–104. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.2011.110250

GINA DORFMAN, DDS, graduated from the University of Southern California in 2000. She is a practicing dentist and the founder of Dentistry for Kids and Adults, a busy family practice just north of Los Angeles, California. She is also a cofounder and the CEO of the paperless dental software company, YAPI. 

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