We can take off like the travel industry

Today, the appointment booking process in the private healthcare sector is so fragmented, inefficient and limited in scope that it is holding us all back. 

Peter Connor explains why a centralised online booking system is critical to the sector’s prosperity and how Healthcode’s technology is making this a reality with benefits for independent practitioners and for their patients.

Booking a summer break was a frustrating experience for many holidaymakers this year as plans were thrown into doubt or thwarted by sudden travel restrictions. 

Perhaps the disruption and uncertainty were more difficult to take because we have all become used to travel being easy, convenient and accessible over the years.

Albeit for different reasons, the experience has been a throwback to the situation of a few decades ago when booking a holiday was a time-consuming and complicated business. 

Back then, most people opted to outsource the work to travel agents who would themselves have to make multiple calls to suppliers to check availability, hold seats and then confirm reservations. 

As well as being a sub-optimal experience for consumers, this bureaucratic exercise was costly for the travel and tourism sector too in terms of staff resources, inefficiency and missed opportunities. 

In the 1990s, industry bosses turned to technology to bring order to the chaos. The growth of internet use encouraged some consumers to go their own way, but the process was still overly complex because of the huge amount of data and fractured lines of communication. 

The real game-changer proved to be a Global Distribution System (GDS), which enabled diverse service providers to exchange information about services and availability in real time through a central hub. 

Transformed experience

Adoption of GDS within the travel sector really transformed the experience for ordinary consumers, enabling them to view the latest options online and book their own flights and hotels. And it was one factor which led to the rapid expansion of overseas travel in the last two decades.

You may be able to see where I am going with this already, but there are clear parallels between the travel industry back then and the private healthcare sector now. 

Like them, we have a booking process which is inefficient and labour-intensive. Like them, different providers – private medical insurers, hospitals and practitioners – are unable to exchange real time information about availability, which carries the risk of double booking or wasted slots. And like them, opportunities for growth are being missed.

We know that patients expect to be able to access healthcare services online – from GP apps to booking an NHS Covid-19 vaccination – but live booking is relatively rare in the private sector and requires human intervention. 

It is true that some patients can reserve a slot on a provider’s online booking application, but the details will still need to be sent to the provider’s admin team and they will need to check the diary to confirm the appointment by phone or email. 

Overall, the booking process is sclerotic, fragmented, prone to failures and detracts from the patient experience. 

Healthcode’s appointment booking solution

Healthcode has long believed a central appointment booking system is critical to the future prosperity of the private healthcare sector, enabling us to optimise the process for providers and meet patient expectations. 

We grasped how a GDS could transform private healthcare as it transformed the travel and hospitality sectors and so started to develop our own bespoke version for the sector, which is in the final stages of development.   

Put simply, our GDS-based appointment booking solution is a hidden engine room that is capable of powering the appointment booking process for private healthcare. 

This is how it works. 

1. Providers – practitioners, clinics and hospitals – link to Healthcode’s GDS through an Application Programming Inter­face (API), which enables them to connect with multiple different booking sites.

2. Providers publish information about their services and synchronise appointment availability through the GDS.

3. This information is shared in real-time with the booking websites. 

4. Third-party users use the booking site of their choice to search for an available slot. There is the potential to have a range of search criteria such as specialty, venue location, time, service type or estimated fee.

5. Once users book an appointment, this information is transmitted in real-time to the provider through the GDS and their appointment/diary system is automatically updated.  

Booking system benefits 

Healthcode’s appointment booking solution has significant benefits: 

Standards-based – Healthcode has built the solution to globally recognised and proven Fast Health-­ care Interoperability Resources (FHIR) messaging standards for data exchange, which have previously been implemented by the NHS for its Electronic Referrals System (ERS). 

Efficient – A truly automated and seamless booking process is more efficient because it removes the need for human intervention to check and confirm booking slots.

Accurate – The availability of appointments is synchronised in real-time, eliminating the possibility of double-booking.

Ensure a better patient experience – The booking experience is smoother and less prone to failure and patients will have the reassurance of being able to make an appointment there and then at a convenient time and location. Patient details are automatically collected at the outset so the provider can provide a personalised service.

Attract more patients – Providers can link to many different booking applications, which extends their potential reach at a time when NHS waiting times are prompting more people to consider private health services.

Quick and easy to implement – It is only necessary to build one interface to the system to reach multiple booking applications, rather than building interfaces for each one. 

Flexible – As well as linking to third-party booking applications via the system, providers also have the option to build a branded front-end booking service to their own specifications. 

Secure – like all Healthcode solutions, it meets stringent information security standards, including enterprise quality infrastructure and end-to-end encryption to protect sensitive data.

Scalable – there are no development costs for existing users when more practitioners, providers and booking applications interface with the system. 

Increases convenience and choice for patients – The solution will be an invisible but revolutionary development that enables patients to search multiple healthcare organisations, using different criteria and filters, to find the service that meets their needs, either directly or through a referring organisation. 

Healthcode has consulted with providers to ensure the appointment booking solution meets their needs and hopes to release the prototype version later this year.

It is time for the private healthcare sector to emulate the travel sector and ditch the fragmented and inefficient appointment booking process that is holding us back. I’m proud that Healthcode’s innovation and online technology is again making it possible.

Peter Connor (right) is managing director at Healthcode