Websites help patients find doctors, make appointments
By Mary Shedden | Tribune StaffGetting in to see the doctor can require expert timing.
Published: June 7, 2012
Published: June 7, 2012
Call after 8 a.m., but not during lunch. Dial up late and an after-hours message is the best bet. When a human voice answers, sit on hold until a busy staffer can help set an appointment for days, maybe weeks away.
It's enough to make you sick — or sicker.
"I would put it off and off," Tampa Palms resident Debbie Lawton says of a more than yearlong delay to find a new family physician for a checkup. Scheduling was too cumbersome and appointments meant she had to take time off from work.
And patients aren't the only ones frustrated; doctors trying to attract and retain customers know the inconvenience is cutting into business.
Some solutions are emerging online, in the form of website scheduling and smart phone apps similar to those used to make dinner reservations at favorite restaurants. The concept is simple: physicians post available appointments and allow patients to sign up right away, day or night.
A few months ago, Lawton stumbled onto ZocDoc, a recent entry into the Suncoast health care market. For a $250 monthly fee that the doctors pay, ZocDoc posts open slots alongside details about the physician and practice, including insurance information.
Lawton initially thought ZocDoc was the website for her insurance carrier. The site landed at the top of a simple Google search for a physician accepting Cigna in her neighborhood. Still, she snagged an appointment for that same evening.
"There's no log on and no password to worry about," Lawton, 50, says of the free service.
A 2010 survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians shows that nearly 21 percent of doctors are using some kind of Internet patient portal for scheduling appointments. Most practices set up a schedule on office websites for existing patients only.
For example, BayCare's Healthpoint Medical Group allows registered patients to schedule appointments online with its more than 100 physicians. And the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center's Center for Women's Oncology is testing online scheduling for women recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
ZocDoc, launched in New York City in 2007, is a little different. It's designed to attract patients shopping for a new doctor. Tony Calvo, office manager for an area physician, says ZocDoc allows him to market to more than seniors on Medicare.
"This has been by far the most successful," he says of the service, which attracts four or five appointments a week to the office.
ZocDoc touts its ability to get same-day or next-day appointments.
Lawton says the real test came when she met her new doctor. She clicked with him, and was thrilled she was immediately referred to a specialist for a suspicious lump on her neck. She's since set up five more appointments, including one for her 17-year-old daughter.
"It's worked beautifully," she says.