How to prevent and manage last-minute cancellations

How to prevent and manage last-minute cancellations

Every front desk professional has had the experience of reviewing the schedule first thing in the morning and thinking, “Perfect . . . every slot is filled, we’re not overbooked, this day should flow as smooth as silk,” only to have three patients call within 10 minutes to cancel on short notice. And there goes the perfect day.

Last-minute cancellations happen, and often they’re unavoidable. Mrs. Martin who was scheduled for her annual physical has to stay home with a sick child; Mr. Elliot calls to say he went to the urgent care overnight when his condition worsened instead of waiting for his 10 a.m. office visit; a family emergency means Ms. Dobkin won’t be showing up for her much-awaited cosmetic treatment after all.

Even the best scheduling system isn’t immune to unexpected events that result in short notice cancellations. Having a plan in place for when this happens is essential. The last thing any practice can afford is a doctor who has the capacity to care for 18 patients but sees only 15.

The most obvious and most used method for maintaining an orderly schedule is making reminder calls to patients the day before their visits. Whether you do this one phone call at a time or use an automated reminder system depends mainly on your practice volume. Either way, investing the time to place these calls can reduce the number of early morning “Oh, I just looked at my schedule and realize I have a conflict” calls you receive from patients.

Maintaining a cancellation list is your best bet for successfully filling appointment slots when you find yourself with a last-minute opening. When a patient requests an appointment for a non-urgent issue and is booked several weeks out but was clearly hoping to be seen sooner, ask if they’d like to be placed on the cancellation list. For someone with a flexible schedule, getting a call at 9 a.m. to come in for an 11:30 a.m. appointment might not be a problem at all, and if they can make it, you’ve solved one problem for the day. Don’t expect that every person you call to offer a last-minute appointment can drop what they’re doing and rush in, however. If they can’t make it, simply thank them for taking your call, tell them they still have their original appointment, and that you’ll keep them on the list for another possible cancellation. Work your way down the list until you find a patient who can fill the opening.

If a patient calls in the morning to cancel an afternoon appointment, keep in mind that you may be able to fill that slot with someone who calls five minutes later and will be delighted to hear, “We just had a cancellation . . . the doctor can see you this afternoon.”

As frustrating as it can be, short notice cancellations and scurrying around to fill open slots in the schedule are part of running a practice. To the degree that you can, take it in stride and know that everything works out okay in the end.