Companies take on unmet need for online appointment booking

Health plans and private companies are among those trying to inject some energy into a slow-growing application of health Internet technology.

By Jonathan G. Bethely — Posted Jan. 22, 2007

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More attempts are being made to close the yawning gap between the large number of patients who want to book appointments online, and the small number of physicians who offer such a service.

That effort is being helped by a number of outside contractors, including health plans, that are signing up physicians and offering online booking services to patients. The contractors hope to address two physician concerns in online booking. First, that it's done in a way that does not cause a physician to lose control of his or her daily schedule. And second, that the practice does not need to develop or install any particular technology to make it work.

They also hope to get patients' awareness that online booking is available. Early efforts show that the gap isn't just about patients not seeing an online booking option -- it's also about not knowing it's possible.

A recent Harris Interactive survey of more than 2,600 adults also said 75% of adults would like to be able to schedule appointments online, but only 4% use existing services.

One company seeing an opportunity in this gap is Santa Monica, Calif.-based DoctorsDirect. The company was founded last year by a former executive at AOL and Mapquest, the online mapping site, and received $2.5 million in venture capital financing. In September 2006, the company launched its service in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia, and last month it expanded into Boston and New York.

By signing up with DoctorsDirect, Bernard Katz, MD, is not only hoping to lure new patients to his practice, he's also expecting existing patients to take advantage of the Web site to schedule future appointments.

"There was an unmet need with young people who use the Internet a lot to communicate. They don't want to sit on the phone, they'd rather schedule their appointments at home," said Dr. Katz, a family physician in Santa Monica, Calif., whose listing on the site allows patients to view available openings on his weekly schedule.

Tommy McGloin, CEO and founder of DoctorsDirect, said physicians determine which appointment slots to make available. When a patient makes an appointment, the physician's office receives an e-mail, and that time slot is removed from the site.

Patients pick up the charge

Physicians do not pay a fee for the DoctorsDirect service. Instead, patients are charged a "convenience fee" of $1.50 to $2 per appointment, similar to the model for online booking of airline tickets or hotel rooms. DoctorsDirect also allows new patients to fill out information forms online.

It remains to be seen whether patients are willing to pay for such a convenience when they can call for an appointment for free. Some early efforts at online booking found low patient response even when there is no charge for the service.

Kevin Palattao, vice president of patient services at Minneapolis-based health plan and health system HealthPartners, said members can book appointments with HealthPartners doctors for free, as long as the patients register on the plan's Web site. He said the site has about 50,000 registered users. In addition to scheduling visits, members also can use the Web site to find out lab results and e-mail their physicians with concerns.

"What we found is that patients actually provide more detail than [office staff] ever got over the phone," Palattao said. "People seem to be more honest with a computer than they are on the phone."

HealthPartners started online appointments in 2004. Palattao said the company is disappointed in the growth, though it realizes it will take time to catch on. In 2006 about 40,000 appointments, or 2.6% of all appointments, were scheduled online, he said.

Various industry experts say that in other industries, it can take five years or more for consumers to recognize and get comfortable with online scheduling, even if they have a stated preference for it.

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