Managing Your Practice

What to Do About Patient No-Shows

Joseph S. Eastern, MD

August 22, 2022

Of all the headaches inherent in a private medical practice, few are more frustrating than patients who make appointments and then fail to keep them.

No-shows are a problem for all physicians, but especially for dermatologists. In one study, the no-show rate in dermatology offices averaged 10% – almost double the average for all medical offices.

The problem has become so pervasive that many physicians are now charging a fee for missed appointments. I have never been a fan of such fees for a variety of reasons, starting with the anger and bad will that they engender; but also, in my experience, they seldom accomplish their intended goal of changing the behavior.

That's because fees imply some sort of conscious decision made by a patient to miss an appointment, but studies show that this is rarely the case. Some patients cite transportation issues or childcare obligations. One Canadian study found that nearly a quarter of patients who missed an appointment felt too sick to keep it. Another reason is lack of insurance coverage. Studies have shown that the no-show rate is far higher when the patient is paying out-of-pocket for the visit.

Patients who don't show up for appointments tend to be younger and poorer, and live farther away from the office than those who attend consistently. Some patients may be unaware that they need to cancel, while others report that they don't feel obliged to keep appointments because they feel disrespected by the system. One person posted on a medical forum, "Everyone's time is valuable. When the doctor makes me wait, there are consequences too. Why are there two standards in the situation?"

The most common reason for missed appointments, however, according to multiple studies, is that patients simply forget that they have one. One reason for that is a lag between appointment and visit. Many dermatologists are booked well in advance; by the time the appointment arrives, some patients' complaints will have resolved spontaneously, while other patients will have found another office willing to see them sooner.

Another big reason is the absence of a strong physician-patient relationship. Perhaps the patient sees a different doctor or physician assistant at each visit and doesn't feel a particular bond with any of them. Some patients may perceive a lack of concern on the part of the physician. And others may suffer from poor communication; for example, patients frequently become frustrated that a chronic condition has not resolved, when it has not been clearly explained to them that such problems cannot be expected to resolve rapidly or completely.

Whatever the reasons, no-shows are an economic and medicolegal liability. It is worth the considerable effort it often takes to minimize them.

Research suggests that no-show rates can be reduced by providing more same-day or next-day appointments. One large-scale analysis of national data found that same-day appointments accounted for just 2% of no-shows, while appointments booked 15 days or more in advance accounted for nearly a third of them. Canadian studies have likewise found the risk of no-shows increases the further in advance clinics book patients.

Deal with simple forgetfulness by calling your patients the day before to remind them of their appointments. Reasonably priced phone software is available from a variety of vendors to automate this process. Or hire a teenager to do it after school each day.

Whenever possible, use cellphone numbers for reminder calls. Patients often aren't home during the day, and many don't listen to their messages when they come in. And patients who have moved will often have a new home phone number, but their cellphone number will be the same.

Decrease the wait for new appointments. Keep some slots open each week for new patients, who will often "shop around" for a faster appointment while they're waiting for an appointment they already have elsewhere.

But above all, seek to maximize the strength of your physician-patient relationships. Try not to shuttle patients between different physicians or PAs, and make it clear that you are genuinely concerned about their health. Impress upon them the crucial role they play in their own care, which includes keeping all their appointments.

In our office, significant no-shows (for example, a patient with a melanoma who misses a follow-up visit) receive a phone call and a certified letter, and their records go into a special file for close follow-up by the nursing staff.

If you choose to go the missed-appointment-fee route, be sure to post notices in your office and on your website clearly delineating your policy. Emphasize that it is not a service fee, and cannot be billed to insurance.

All missed appointments should be documented in the patient's record; it's important clinical and medicolegal information. And habitual no-shows should be dismissed from your practice. You cannot afford them.

Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at dermnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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