Are you cannibalising your private clinic slots?

This article is one of a series looking at some common reasons why consultants might not be seeing more private patients. They focus on the things that may be getting in the way of you growing a healthy private practice – and what you need to do to fix them.

This time, we’re looking at how letting NHS patients book into your private slots can stunt your private practice success.

Let’s start by looking at a typical clinic schedule…

One of your first jobs when setting up an outpatient clinic at a private hospital is to plan your clinic’s schedule. This means deciding how many of each type of appointment (or “slot”) you’re going to offer, and in what order.

I worked with many consultants during my time as a private hospital marketing manager. For most of them, their practice consisted of a mixture of both NHS e-Referral patients and private patients (insured and self-pay).

There are lots of different appointment types you might put into your schedule. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume you just have the following four:

  • NHS: New
  • NHS: Follow-up
  • Private: New
  • Private: Follow-up

A typical clinic schedule, then, might look a bit like this:

TimeAppointment type
18:00NHS: New or Follow-up
18:15NHS: New or Follow-up
18:30NHS: New or Follow-up
18:45NHS: New or Follow-up
19:00NHS: New or Follow-up
19:15Private: New or Follow-up
19:30Private: New or Follow-up
19:45Private: New or Follow-up

Going slightly off-topic for a moment, you’ll notice that the private appointments are the last slots of the day. This has two benefits:

1. The later evening slots might be more convenient for private patients, so they don’t have to take any (or as much) time off work.

2. If you’re still building your private practice and there are no guarantees you’ll fill those private slots, you’ll be able to leave early. Or better yet, use that time to work on your marketing without knowing you’ll have to be back in “patient mode” again shortly. (This assumes, of course, that you’ve booked patients in “from the front”.)

The pitfalls of not sticking to your clinic schedule

Clinic structures and schedules are really up to you, and the number and types of patients you see.
But there’s a story from my time as a hospital marketing manager that’s stuck in my memory. When a consultant asked me why he wasn’t seeing more private patients, we discovered he was essentially being too nice and letting NHS follow-up patients book his private slots!
In other words, he wasn’t sticking to his schedule of appointment types.
And there’s more. The consultant in question was a great surgeon, and very passionate about giving the best care. But this meant he also gave more follow-up appointments to his NHS patients than were really required. By filling up his clinic with existing NHS patients, he didn’t leave any room for new private ones.
There’s clearly nothing wrong with wanting to do your best by your patients and give them a great service. And if you want to see a patient again, of course that’s your decision to make as a clinician. But if you break your schedule and book NHS appointments into private slots, you’re going to hinder the growth of your private practice.

The key reason you need to be strict about your clinic schedule

“What’s the big deal?”, you might ask. “If my private slots are empty, I’d rather see someone as a follow-up than not see anyone at all.”
There’s a logic to that, of course. But if you want to see more private patients, there’s also a flaw.
One of the main reasons patients choose to go private is to get a fast diagnosis and treatment. They want to see you within the next few days, or couple of weeks at the latest.
If you’re not keeping your private slots available because you’re filling them with NHS patients, then you’re not offering that desirable part of the private experience: speed.
Let’s see how this plays out in different patient booking scenarios:

1. A patient booking an appointment via phone

Private hospitals naturally promote appointment availability as a reason to use them. So what happens when a patient calls to book an appointment and says they want to see someone as soon as possible? If you don’t have any private slots available for weeks, the call advisor is going to have to offer an alternative consultant with earlier appointments. That means you lose out.

2. A patient booking an appointment online

Hospital groups are increasingly offering online booking, where patients are shown a calendar of all your available appointments to choose from. Some booking systems even display all available appointments across a particular specialty. So if you have no private slots available soon, you’ll end up showing the patient an empty calendar – or not appear in the calendar at all!

3. A patient booking an appointment through their insurer

Sometimes patients will book a consultation through their insurance provider instead. Insurers want to offer patients the smoothest experience possible, and technological improvements now often allow them to book patients directly into your clinic.  And just like hospitals, they want to offer patients the earliest appointment time – meaning you’ll miss out again if you have nothing available within a week or two.

How can you see more private patients if you’re cannibalising your private appointments?

The answer is easy: Stick to your schedule, and keep private slots for private patients.

But while the solution is simple, executing it can be much harder.

Firstly, your new, more strict approach to appointment booking needs communicating to your team. Depending on how you manage your practice, this might include your medical secretary and/or practice manager, as well as the hospital bookings team. Let them know you want to keep to the appointment types set up in your schedule, and that you all have to be strict about sticking to it – including yourself!

Secondly, you may find you need to shift your mindset. That might be tricky to do, especially when you know you have patients that need seeing and you have these unfilled slots. But it’s a fallacy to think that you’ll grow your private practice by just seeing any patient rather than letting the slots go empty.

Psychologically, it might feel a bit painful – or even counter-intuitive at first – to go from having a busy 2-hour clinic to being finished in just over half the time. But remind yourself that it’s short-term pain for long-term gain.

Availability is the name of the game, so ensuring you can offer it to private patients is one way in which you’ll grow a healthy private practice.

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