Top tips from the front desk

March 1, 2011

As a busy eye-care facility, Clayton Eye Center in Morrow, GA, employs four ophthalmologists and seven optometrists who see as many as 200 patients daily.

Morrow, GA-As a busy eye-care facility, Clayton Eye Center in Morrow, GA, employs four ophthalmologists and seven optometrists who see as many as 200 patients daily.

As chaotic as that may sound, employees who work the front desk have found ways to help the practice run more efficiently. Their hints help avoid common obstacles that many practices face, such as patients who don't have a credit card or cash to pay their co-payments.

Some tips that may help improve the check-in/check-out process are as follows:

"We make sure everything is in place, from policies to paperwork, so that when a patient comes to our office, everything we need is right there," said Charlene Taylor, front desk manager at Clayton Eye Center. "Patients are our bloodline. Without them, we wouldn't have a job or a practice."

A vital part of customer service is effective communication. At Clayton Eye Center, some employees are multilingual, speaking up to five different languages, including Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese.

Learn each other's jobs. The practice cross-trains front-desk employees in scheduling, checkout, and insurance verification so that they can address patients' questions or concerns effectively. They rotate positions daily to keep their knowledge and skills current and so they can fill in for others who are ill or on vacation.

Inform patients about co-payments. In the past, Taylor said, some 10% of the practice's patients checked out without paying their co-payments. Not anymore. When a patient arrives, a front-desk employee tells him or her what the co-payment is and asks whether the patient plans to pay with cash, check, or credit card.

"We notify [patients] up front and put a note in their charts about how they prefer to pay so when they get to check out, there's no problem," she said.

Verify insurance prior to a patient's appointment. When patients schedule appointments, the staff says that the practice will verify their insurance. They also advise patients to call several days before the scheduled appointment to learn how much their insurance will cover. An estimated 20% call back, Taylor said.

The Clayton Eye Center staff also posts insurance information in patient charts so others can quote accurate charges.

Do your homework. Employees routinely collect patient information, such as the reason for a visit or if a patient expects to purchase glasses or contacts before the scheduled appointment. This way, everyone knows what to expect each day, which better prepares the office to accommodate patients' needs.

Schedule the next appointment before patients leave the office. When a patient checks out, the staff schedules the next visit, even if it's 1 year away. Some 99% of their patients do so. More surprisingly, Taylor said, less than 7% change their appointment times.

She explained that it's all in the approach.

"Employees don't ask patients if they would like to make an appointment," Taylor said. "Given the option, most will decline, preferring to call back. We say, 'The doctor would like to see you next year. Would the same day and time be good for you?' "

Taylor believes this approach works well because many of the practice's patients are elderly and have flexible schedules.

Conduct chart audits. Eight managers pull patient charts from the previous day to ensure that the coding, co-payments, and charges are all accurate. This process helps prevent billing errors and claim denials.

Use chart labels. Placing different stickers on patient charts helps prevent errors and alerts doctors. For example, stickers may say allergy, minor child, or name alert whenever several patients have similar names.

Learn which vision plans health insurance companies contract with. For example, a patient may have medical coverage through CIGNA. However, CIGNA offers patients in its HMO and POS plans vision care through Vision Service Plan.

It's important to know the vision insurers that health plans contract with, Taylor said. That eliminates guesswork or the need to make phone calls.

Encourage teamwork. Praise for employees, e-mail kudos, and other types of recognition are built into the practice's culture.