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Why You Need to Embrace Digital Communication in Your Vet Practice

It's time to ditch postcard reminders. Look into texting and emails to communicate with your patients.


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Texts have a 99 percent open rate, and 95 percent of messages are read within 3 minutes of being sent, studies have found.

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When a phone directory landed on my front porch last week, I tossed it in the recycle bin. Could postcards become as obsolete as the yellow pages for veterinary hospitals and suffer the same fate as that phone directory? 

Years ago, dentists abandoned postcards as appointment scheduling reminders, instead implementing forward booking and confirming appointments via text and email. When 1,715 dental patients were asked to choose their preferred communication method for appointment reminders, 30 percent chose texts, 28 percent want emails, 25 percent prefer phone calls and 17 percent said direct mail.1 Digital appointment reminders are now a dental profession standard. A Sesame Communications study of five years of dental practice performance found that digital appointment reminders reduced no-shows 23 percent and generated $31,457 that the practice would have lost.2 The same study found 97 percent of dental patients would rather click than call their dental offices.

Because veterinary practices often mirror dental offices, I watch trends to see which ones could impact our profession. Digital client engagement should be a top priority for veterinary hospitals. Fear forced many practice owners to spend thousands in phone directory advertising for years beyond its effectiveness. Don’t let the attitude “We’ve always sent postcards” derail your judgment—dip into the digital revolution.

Measure Your Response Rates

Postcards are expensive and labor intensive. A two-doctor small animal practice sends about 300 reminders each month, costing $423 or more in postage, materials and staff labor or use of a third-party mail service. How many postcards do you mail each month? What is the response rate? Ask your practice-management software or third-party provider for monthly response rate reports. Evaluate the percentage of clients who respond to first, second and third notices so you can make informed decisions. Based on response rates, you might choose email and text for first and second reminders, and reserve postcards and phone calls for third notices.

Get Fast Responses Via Text

Texts have a 99 percent open rate, and 95 percent of messages are read within 3 minutes of being sent.3 Two-way texts can reduce phone calls while improving productivity. Graduate beyond texts for appointment and surgical confirmations and medication dosing reminders. Think of the top 10 tasks that suck time from your team. Could 10-minute phone conversations for prescription refills be converted into 30-second texts? Depending on your hospital’s size, receptionists may get 30 to 50 calls for prescription refills each day. Turn more than 8 hours of phone conversations into 25 minutes of texting. Use text communication for missed appointments, inactive clients, postsurgical instructions with links to how-to videos, weight-management programs, boarding updates, collections and much more.

Dialog Health, used by Mayo Clinic, hospitals and physicians, now offers texting services for veterinary hospitals. In addition to reminder and confirmation texts, the program allows users to create a series of automated text messages, broadcast texts about extended hours or weather closures, employee-only notices and more. 

Brandon Daniell, president of Dialog Health’s veterinary division, began focusing on animal health after poor follow-up from his veterinarian for his dog’s surgery. The program allows veterinarians to design automated serial texts such as “Remember to limit Cadet’s activity during the first 6 weeks after surgery. Short leash walks only,” “Is Cadet taking his pain medication? Reply yes or no. Call 555-555-5555 with questions,” and “We will see Cadet on Tuesday at 4 p.m. for suture removal.”

Campaigns should “notify, educate, support and steer” pet owners, Daniell said. If the veterinarian calls and gets the client’s voicemail, send a follow-up text such as “Dr. Smith left you a voicemail about Cadet. Please listen to the message, and then call us at 555-555-5555. Dr. Smith is here until 7 p.m.”

Engage with Email

Because 53 percent of emails are opened on mobile devices, use mobile-friendly templates that include links to call your clinic and request appointments online.4 Constantly confirm and update clients’ emails, because one in four emails never make it to subscribers’ inboxes.5 

Have receptionists confirm clients’ emails and cell numbers during scheduling calls and check-in. Say, “Wendy, we are sending emails about Alex’s reminders and health alerts to you at wmyers@csvets.com. Is this the best email to reach you?” 

If you don’t have the client’s email, use benefit statements and explain how you will use the email. “Wendy, I see that we are missing your email. We will email you about Alex’s reminders, appointment confirmations and pet health alerts. You also may access Alex’s health records and request appointments and medication refills through our website. Which email would be the best for you to receive important information for Alex?”

Combine Text, Email

Cut check-in time in half when you set expectations before the day of surgical and dental procedures. Text the client, “See you tomorrow at 8 a.m. for Cadet’s surgical admission appointment. Don’t give Cadet food after 11 p.m. Water is OK. We emailed surgical forms to <email>. Reply with questions, or call 555-555-5555.” The text prompts the client to check her email, where senders can provide detailed fasting instructions and attach consent forms and treatment plans. Your email message might say, “We will see <pet name> for surgery tomorrow at <Your Veterinary Hospital>. Please withhold food after ___ p.m. tonight. Water is OK to drink to prevent dehydration. Your surgical admission begins at 8 a.m. with a technician, who will spend 15 minutes reviewing the consent form, answering your questions, and getting phone numbers where we can reach you the day of the procedure. I’ve attached your treatment plan and anesthesia consent forms. To speed your admission, please bring these signed forms with you, or we are happy to answer questions during check-in. Please allow at least 15 minutes for <pet name>’s admission to the hospital. If you have questions, call us at 555-555-5555.”

Send push notifications through apps. Prompt clients to book appointments for preventive care and refill prescriptions before doses run out. Improve compliance for preventatives and long-term medications while removing the hassle of calling for refills and eliminating the forgetfulness of clients. Text and picture messaging through the app can stop frustrating and time-sucking telephone tag. VitusVet creates apps branded to practices with reminders and confirmations, text and picture messaging, target marketing, and appointment and refill requests (vitusvet.com).

Ask clients their preferred communication methods. While 92 percent of Americans own cell phones and 87 percent of millennials say their smartphones never leave their sides, 41 percent of people over age 65 don’t use the internet.6,7 Postcards and phone calls may be the only way to reach clients who are unplugged or opt out of emails and texts. Repetition of the message also may get results, leading busy clients to schedule pets’ appointments after a blend of texts, emails, app notices, postcards and phone calls.

My best advice: Track your return on investment, watch technology trends and know how clients want to hear from your practice. You may find 80 percent want texts, 10 percent prefer emails and 10 percent enjoy opening mail. The mix may change year to year. Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, are the largest pet-owning group, taking their pets to veterinarians more than any other demographic segment and spending $11 billion.8 More clients will prefer digital communication in the future. Is your practice ready?  

References

  1. California Dental Association. “Patients prefer digital appointment reminders.” February 2005, 2015. Accessed 04-10-17 at bit.ly/1AovKlw. 
  2. Friedman D, Williams T. “Study reveals how automated patient appointment reminders affect dental practice no-show rates and production.” Dental Tribune, February 2013. Accessed 04-10-17 at bit.ly/2ptPeqj. 
  3. Burke K. “63 texting statistics that answer all your questions.” Text Request, May 24. Accessed 04-03-17 at bit.ly/2pGJFWc.
  4. Stiglitz K. “70 email marketing stats every marketer should know.” Campaign Monitor, January 2016. Accessed 04-03-17 at bit.ly/2pcTjhM.
  5. MacDonald S. “The science behind email open rates and how to get more people to read your emails.” SuperOffice, March 2017. Accessed 04-03-17 at bit.ly/1KdqZMw.
  6. McDonough M. “Mobile usage statistics: Key facts and findings for publishers.” Ezoic Blog, March 2016. Accessed 04-10-17 at bit.ly/2qfaroD. 
  7. Taylor, S. “Why direct mail marketing is far from dead.” The Huffington Post, June 2016. Accessed 04-10-17 at huff.to/290fsXb. 
  8. Kelly C. “Millennials making their mark.” Vet-Advantage, October 2016. Accessed 04-10-17 at bit.ly/2qnIGqj.  

Wendy S. Myers owns Communication Solutions for Veterinarians in Castle Pines, Colo. She is a certified veterinary journalist and the author of “101 Communication Skills for Veterinary Teams.” Reach her at wmyers@csvets.com or csvets.com.

Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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