Counseling Today, Features

Technology Tutor: Scheduling in the cloud

By Rob Reinhardt March 2, 2016

Despite significant growth in the use of electronic health record (EHR)/practice management systems, some counselors still benefit from the use of stand-alone online scheduling programs. Whether it’s because their EHR systems don’t offer a client portal, they desire more robust scheduling features or they aren’t ready to take the full EHR plunge, counselors may find themselves looking for a cloud-based scheduling program.

This article discusses the major features counselors should look for in a cloud-based scheduling system and some of the most well-known applications. It may also be a useful guide for those looking for specific scheduling features in an EHR system. Each counselor should decide the priority for these features based on his or her needs.

Major features

HIPAA compliance: First and foremost, I encourage you to choose a vendor that is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Even if you aren’t a HIPAA “covered entity,” HIPAA is starting to be considered a measure of best practices and standard of care when it comes to ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of client data. Remember that the software itself can’t be HIPAA compliant; the vendor needs to be (see tameyourpractice.com/HIPAA).

Be wary of vendors reporting that they don’t need to comply with HIPAA or that it doesn’t apply to them. This represents an outdated view of HIPAA. Appointments and appointment reminders contain protected health information, and HIPAA requires a business associate agreement between a covered entity and any vendor that stores or transmits that sort of data for the covered entity.

Client information: Online scheduling applications will track a varying amount of information. Most will include basics such as name, email address and phone number. Others will allow for the creation of custom fields to track additional data about clients. These can include elements that clients complete (e.g., referral source) or that you track internally (e.g., a general notes field). The most feature-rich systems might even allow you to create custom intake forms for clients to complete online.

Different services: A good scheduling application will allow you to define several different services that you offer to clients. The basics would include something such as “initial intake” and “counseling session.” In many systems, it’s also possible to create a service for therapy groups that allows more than one client to schedule.

Availability: You likely don’t schedule appointments at 3 a.m. on Saturdays, so you won’t want clients to book at that time. Most scheduling applications will allow you to set your available office hours. The better applications allow you to efficiently adjust availability when things such as holidays, vacations, meetings and conferences come up. The idea here is that clients will be able to book appointments only when you have noted that you are available.

Appointment control: In providing consulting services to counselors across the country, I have found that they have widely varying needs and methods when they screen clients initially. Some counselors are perfectly fine with new clients scheduling their first meeting online. Others prefer to screen all clients through an initial phone call. You will want to ensure that any online scheduling application you use will complement your workflow. For example, if you prefer to screen all new clients on the phone, you may need a system that allows only current clients to schedule appointments. Alternatively, a system may limit new clients to scheduling only an initial intake or screening.

Online payment: One very effective way to improve cash flow in a private practice is to require payment upfront. Requiring clients to make a payment to secure an appointment via an online scheduling system takes this feature to the next level. However, this can be challenging to implement for a practice that accepts insurance. Copays and deductibles can vary, and most scheduling systems won’t allow you to set different rates for different clients.

Appointment reminders: Once the appointment is set, you’ll want to make sure that the client remembers it. Appointment reminders have been shown to significantly reduce late cancellations and no-shows. Considering that almost all systems have automated reminders, this is a must-have feature for most practices. Email reminders are typically free, with some systems charging a small fee for phone and text reminders.

Rescheduling: Life happens, so you’ll need to consider whether you want to give clients the capability of canceling or rescheduling appointments online. Some counselors like their clients to have this convenience, while others are concerned that it makes it too easy to put counseling off. Fortunately, most systems will allow you to require that clients provide a certain amount of notice (e.g., at least 24 hours) to be able to cancel or reschedule. You may also decide not to allow these actions to be taken online at all.

Multiple staff or locations: If you have multiple staff or locations, you’ll need a system that accounts for this. You’ll also want to make sure that clients can readily identify the correct counselor and office for scheduling an appointment.

Website integration: For a scheduling system to be most useful, there should be a way to integrate it into your current website. Some systems allow you to place buttons or links on your site that take clients to their site for scheduling. Although that isn’t a deal breaker, it can cause confusion and isn’t nearly as professional looking as something that is integrated directly into your website. Systems that offer this level of integration typically provide user-friendly tools and widgets to add to your website. Depending on how tech savvy you are, you may need some help from your website developer to make this happen.

Reports: Some systems offer reports on everything from monthly appointments booked to cancellations to revenues and more. These features are often icing on the cake that can make handling the business side of things easier and more efficient.

Intangibles: Intangibles such as ease of use, interface and compatibility with your workflow may be important factors in your choice of scheduling software. Because these items are subjective, only you can decide how important they are. Most solutions offer a free trial period. I encourage you to test the system from both sides before making a final decision. After setting things up from the business side, log in from the client side and ensure that your clients will have a smooth, user-friendly experience as well.

Options

At the time I’m writing this article, I’m aware of three online scheduling options for which the vendors report being HIPAA compliant. I originally set out to provide an in-depth review of each, only to find that the features they offer are quite similar. It’s likely that your choice will come down to your subjective experience with each option or the presence of a specific feature (or features) that you need.

  • YellowSchedule (yellowschedule.com): YellowSchedule has a very clean interface and is regularly innovating with new features. For example, its text confirmation of appointments and Facebook plug-in can help streamline workflow. It is also the only one of these three options that currently has a dedicated mobile app. One downside to YellowSchedule is that it doesn’t allow you to restrict who can make appointments. The company reports that this feature will be added soon.
  • Full Slate (fullslate.com): Full Slate was one of the first cloud-based scheduling applications to address HIPAA compliance and has a very user-friendly interface, including one of the most efficient ways to adjust availability. One downside is that I don’t feel that Full Slate has been innovating much over the past three years. If you choose Full Slate, you’ll want to make sure that it already offers the features you need.
  • Acuity Scheduling (acuityscheduling.com): Acuity also has a friendly user interface and a robust set of features. It offers the widest array of integration with other applications, including customer relationship management/newsletter software such as MailChimp and AWeber. This can be helpful if your marketing plan includes newsletters. One downside to Acuity is that if you adjust your availability often, the process can be tedious.

 

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Whatever your motivation for considering an online scheduling system, when properly chosen and implemented, it can be an important piece of moving toward a more efficient, or even paperless, office.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you have additional questions, or would you like to see me address a specific topic in this column? Please drop me an email.

 

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Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, is a private practice and business consultant who helps counselors create and maintain efficient, successful private practices. Before becoming a professional counselor, he worked as a software developer and director of information technology. Contact him at rob@tameyourpractice.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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