4 Ways to Ensure Your Ophthalmology Practice is Maximizing Its Front Desk Staff

By Michael Carroll on August 24, 2018

The importance of front desk staff is two-fold. First, their efficiency or inefficiency has a trickledown effect. A mismanaged front desk can affect the standard of care, billing, claims and ultimately practice revenues. Second, your front desk staff is your face to the world: the first impression patients get of your practice. Did you know the number one complaint of patients is related to front desk staff? That’s what one survey published by Becker’s Hospital Review revealed. Of the 35,000 online reviews analyzed, an alarming 96%  of patient complaints were related to customer service. Only 4% centered around clinical complaints. Negative reviews came from unhappy patients that cited inadequate communications and disorganized operations as what motivated them to write the review.

What’s the good news? “It’s far simpler to fix problems at the front desk or with physician scheduling than to deal with allegations of inadequate medical skills,” said researchers. How can you ensure your patients are not among the ones writing negative reviews? Here are four ways to maximize your front desk staff so that the rest of the office is running efficiently…leading to happy patients.

  1. Gather Demographics

This blog has repeatedly emphasized the importance of accurate claims processing. According to Modern Medicine, ophthalmology is one of the top five CMS specialties with the highest denial rate, coming in at 12.7%. Among the top five reasons for denial is code 16: “claim/service lacks information or has submission/billing error(s) which is needed for adjudication.” Simply put, patient demographics are wrong or missing. While typically billers get all the blame for high denial rates or all the glory for low rates, the front desk is responsible for almost 50% of the data on a claim form. In addition to checking phone and address, front desk staff must be trained to verify that an accurate guarantor is listed and that the insured party’s demographics are correct. These must be checked at each visit, regardless of how often the patient has been in the office. Most claims are submitted electronically now, so front desk staff must also understand the proper format when entering demographics. Demographic inaccuracies don’t just affect that individual claim either. They are required for meeting Meaningful Use standards as well. Accurately filling in race, ethnicity, language and other demographics will affect practice reimbursement from Medicaid. Properly training staff on collecting demographics will ensure your cash flow continues on schedule.

  1. Focus on Accuracy

When training, emphasize that accuracy is more important than speed. There’s no doubt that front desk staff have one of the most challenging jobs in the practice. The term multi-tasking is an understatement for them. They are often answering phones, checking in patients, answering questions, verifying insurance, getting appropriate signatures and numerous other activities. Getting distracted or feeling rushed can cause data entry errors that will result in denied claims. The conversion to electronic health records (EHR) and the integration of billing software often improves accuracy since it requires certain fields to be populated. However, there’s still room for error. For example, data must exactly match what’s on the patient’s insurance card. Something as simple as a misspelled name will be kicked back by the payor. The benefits of accurate EHRs extend past billing as well. One national survey found that 88% of providers report that it produces clinical benefits for the practice and 75% say the accuracy and availability of EHRs allows them to deliver better patient care. Accurate records will also help determine patient authorization requirements and visit limitations, avoiding procedures and visits that might not be covered. Help the front desk work more efficiently with these tips.

  • Pre-register patients. Whether you do it through a patient portal, e-mail or regular mail, completing paperwork ahead of time avoids the front-desk bottleneck.
  • Streamline the paperwork. Take a look at the forms you are using. Are you using them because they are needed or because you have just always used them? See what can be simplified.
  • Automate common processes. Fielding calls for nursing staff or prescription refills can be a full-time job within itself. Automate these duties either through your phone system or an online portal.
  • Add an online portal. Speaking of online portals, adding one can drastically cut the number of calls coming to the front desk. In addition to filling prescriptions and asking medical questions, patients can look at and print their records and pay bills.
  1. Collect Out-of-Pocket Fees

Collecting money is probably the most awkward duty for front desk staff. However, it’s one of the most critical. A recent survey from Athenahealth found that practices only collect 12% of out-of-pocket expenses at the time of service and collect nothing 67% of the time. “Having the right people that know how to effectively and appropriately ask for payment is important,” stated one consultant in a Healthcare Dive interview. Set expectations when hiring staff. Let them know what’s expected and how important it is to the practice. Additionally, set up processes that give insight into the patient’s ability to pay. Well before a surgery or procedure, determine the patient’s portion. When the scheduler calls to set up the appointment, give them complete information including the projected out-of-pocket balance and when it is due. Inquire if the patient will be using a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA). Offer payment options well in advance so the patient can plan ahead. An integrated billing system will also help the front desk staff to always know the patient’s balance and what arrangement for payment has been previously set up.

  1. Make Customer Service a Priority

It’s true that your front desk is always busy. They must discuss sensitive financial matters. And, they often field calls from stressed out patients. However, customer service must be a priority. Ultimately, patients are customers. They have options. They are increasingly more informed and taking control of their health care. And the market is competitive. In addition, over one billion dollars in annual Medicare funding is tied to the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS), a patient satisfaction survey required by CMS. Topics covered include cleanliness, doctor competencies and the communication skills of both front desk and clinical staff. Even if your office isn’t directly affected by these reimbursements, the surveys are conditioning patients to review their entire experience when they see a provider. How would your staff stand up to a detailed survey? Find out by sending out an electronic survey after each contact, whether it’s in the office or through the portal. Here are three common sense tips for providing great customer service.

  • Keep your promises. Train front desk staff to say “I”ll call you back today” or “Your wait will be about 15 minutes” only if that is really true. Setting patient expectations is 99% of perceived good service.
  • Show appreciation. Encourage front desk staff to say “Thank you.” You’d be surprised how often this does not happen. Patients are customers and should be treated as such.
  • Apologize. Mistakes happen. Don’t simply overlook them. A simple, “I’m sorry we’re running a little behind today” or “I’m sorry your invoice was not accurate” goes a long way to make a good impression.

Agnite Health LLC, an affiliate of Advantage Administration, Inc., helps front desk staff operate more efficiently by streamlining the medical billing functions of the practice. We have helped hundreds of practices across the country improve their overall patient experience by improving their billing cycle. Contact us to learn more about our solutions.