Though it may prove challenging to get patients on board, having patients schedule their own medical appointments via a portal has many benefits, Accenture reports.

On the surface, getting patients to set their own medical appointments online should be an easy sell. After all, setting appointments through a website is more private than calling a medical office, can be done after office hours and on weekends, and saves patients the trouble of burrowing through a medical practice’s phone system. The truth, however, is that a fair number of patients aren’t comfortable with such tools—especially seniors aged 65+.

However, online appointment setting is here to stay, and within a few years should become the dominant method for scheduling medical visits, according to research by Accenture. What’s more, widespread adoption of digital self-scheduling could change how the entire healthcare industry works, according to the report.

“The use of digital solutions for DIY appointment making will radically alter the US health system marketplace,” Accenture reports.

An uphill battle

As of today, less than one-third of Americans aged 65 or above use the web to find health information or access an EMR or portal, according to a study by University of Michigan Health System research. If a senior patient has poor health literacy, the number going online for health research drops to around 10%, researchers reported. 

While doing so may help them improve their health, getting seniors to rely on web-based health information or leverage EMRs and portals may be an uphill battle. Many seniors aren’t comfortable using the web, and poor seniors may not even have a broadband Internet connection in their home, University of Michigan researchers noted.

Getting seniors comfortable with resources like WebMD, much less self-scheduling their own medical appointments, is likely to take time, effort and money. But if Accenture is right, getting seniors and other holdouts online will be worth the trouble.

“By the end of 2019, 66% of US health systems will offer digital self-scheduling and 64% will book appointments digitally, delivering $3.2 billion in value and a competitive boost for health systems,” the Accenture report predicts.

About 38% of all medical appointments will be self-scheduled, representing 986 million of total appointments made, the consulting firm says. That’s a huge jump from this year, in which only 2.4% of appointments were scheduled via the web.

Late adopters face trouble

While providers that get on board with web-based self-scheduling will see significant benefits, those that don’t may face severe consequences, Accenture notes. If nothing else, providers will waste a great deal of time. After all, the average time for a patient to complete a scheduling transaction sits at around 8 minutes, and what’s more, medical agents end up transferring calls to others in their organization a surprising 63% of the time. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that much of this time could be put to better use.

For example, if web-based self-scheduling lightens office staffers’ responsibilities, these workers will be freed up to perform more complex duties—increasing the value of dollars spent on their compensation.

What’s more, online appointment setting could potentially reduce bad debt levels. Portals can be set up to help patients figure out ahead of time what their financial liability will be, and eventually, as the technology matures, allow them to pay their share of care expenses ahead of time.

All that being said, there will still be providers who hold out to the bitter end and cling to live appointment setting. But those who do implement web-based self-scheduling should be pleasantly surprised by the extent of its benefits.

Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. You can follow Anne on Twitter @ziegerhealth.

The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.