Individuals worldwide seek the services of professional acupuncturists to relieve their pain and improve their well-being. Unfortunately, many acupuncturists face a pain of their own when it comes to scheduling their patients' appointments and filing their information. Between disruptive phone calls to keeping accurate session information and notes, this seemingly simple task can be a tedious, time-consuming challenge to acupuncture professionals and their staff.

Thanks to advances in Web-based technology, acupuncturists are finding it easy to automate and streamline their appointment-scheduling processes. The result is more time spent on their patients and practice.

WEB-BASED SCHEDULING SOFTWARE: HOW IT WORKS

Online scheduling applications are what are commonly known as Software as a Service (SaaS), and they're accessible in the same way as other common Web services such as online banking and e-mail. Although features can vary among the many providers, most scheduling software offers such functionality as:

• Online patient self-scheduling, which allows individuals to schedule and manage their own appointments. All they need is an Internet connection. Once they access the scheduler, they'll be able to see what's available and the services provided. They can even re-schedule or cancel an appointment by simply logging into their account.

• Automated e-mail and text message reminders. Most practices realize the benefit of reminders, which can have a tremendous impact on the percentage of patients who make their appointments. In fact, surveys show that reminders can reduce the number of “no-shows” by 50 percent. However, they also require staff time and, in instances where an acupuncturist sends postcards or other miled reminders, money. Some online scheduling software providers allow acupuncturists to schedule automatic e-mail and / or text message reminders prior to patient appointments. Just schedule a time to send them, and the system does all the rest.

• Record-keeping and report-generating capabilities. Like other service providers, acupuncturists depend on accurate record-keeping and reports for reviewing their operations. This can be a grueling task for them and their support staff, especially if they record the information in separate files or folders. Many appointment-scheduling software programs make this important task easy; in fact, some offer pre-set reports that only require the user to select specific criteria and fields to pull.

• Online payment options. Many patients will appreciate the ability to schedule their acupuncture sessions online. They may also wish to pay for their services at the same time. By offering online payment options, some scheduling providers make it easy not only for the patient, but also for the acupuncturist, as he or she can finalize this important transaction before the patient's session.

• E-marketing capabilities. Many acupuncturists distribute news, discounts, coupons and other information to their patients via the Internet. Managing patient e-mails and compiling messages, however, can be a tedious process. Since scheduling software centralizes and stores patient information-including e-mail addresses-and allows users to easily pull a mailing list containing it, it provides an ideal tool for assisting in e-marketing campaigns.

To begin using such services, an acupuncturist must first determine which provider offers the best functionality for his or her practices (see below for considerations when choosing a provider). He or she then creates an account and customizes the appointment schedule to fit fit his or her needs. This involves a thorough analysis of all the settings and features offered by the system. Once tested and ready to use, the appointment software provider will then typically send the acupuncturist a link to the schedule. This can then be shared with patients on the practice of Web site, in e-newsletters, on invoices, receipts and other document, in person or on the phone, and other means. The scheduling software provider may also provide buttons and banners for placement on a Web site, such as a “Schedule Now” button.

Acupuncturists may be under the impression that a web site is necessary to use online scheduling software. This is not the case. In essence, the scheduler itself is a Web site. All that's required for them and their clients to access it is an Internet connection.

CONSIDERATIONS WHEN CHOOSING A PROVIDER

Selecting a provider can prove a daunting task, considering the number of scheduling software applications available. It's important that acupuncturists examine their specific needs and the functionality offered by a provider before making a decision. Some appointment-scheduling software providers offer a free trial of their product, which is the perfect way to test it out and see if it will meet expectations.

Considerations include:

• Web-based versus traditional. For most acupuncture practices, a Web-based application is preferred over more traditional software programs, such as those sold at retail outlets. Traditional scheduling programs typically require installation and expensive hardware, and their usage is usually limited to an individual office computer or network. This makes them difficult to access from outside the office. The only requirement to create and use an online scheduler is an Internet connection. There are no downloads, installations or other actions required to begin using the service. You simply access it in the same way you would any other Web page.

• Functionality. Although the aforementioned features are standard in many applications, they are not the only ones an acupuncture practice may need to effectively improve their appointment-scheduling procedures. Be sure to conduct an overall analysis of specific needs, and then determine if the scheduling provider can meet them. For example, an acupuncturist may offer “packages” of bundled sessions and services, which some appointment scheduling software applications may provide as an add-on feature.

• Security. As the scheduling application will house not only your contact information, but your patients' as well, it's important that the provider varies utilizes the current current and dependable security measures.

• Payment options. Some appointment-scheduling software providers offer month-to-month payment options, a perfect alternative for acupuncturists looking to avoid long-term contracts.

• Dependability. As the scheduler will handle one of the most important office tasks, it's important that a practitioner select a proven application. If a free trial of the product is available, take advantage of it and learn the “ins” and “outs” of the system before making a decision.

Scheduling and maintaining appointments and information sounds simple enough. But for many acupuncturists, it can turn into a frustrating task that takes time away from them and their patients. By tapping into Web appointment-scheduling applications, practitioners can refer the pain of appointment procedures and utilize technology to improve their office operations.