Creating an Appointment Cancellation Policy

Crafting an Effective Appointment Cancellation Policy

An Appointment Cancellation Policy that Reduces No-Shows

Along with appointment reminders, a good appointment cancellation policy reduces no-shows. If you don’t have an effective cancellation policy in place, your practice will see a higher no-show rate, a higher cancellation rate, and non-productive gaps in your schedule.

A customer told us that appointment reminders were helping, but she was still seeing no-shows. We asked her if she had an appointment cancellation policy. She explained that she did. Upon reviewing the policy we realized why it wasn’t effective. Her practice did request a 24-hour notice in the event of a cancellation, but the wording was vague and it was being misinterpreted by the staff and patients. There was a cancellation fee policy, but the fee wasn’t being charged.

We’ve noticed that many healthcare practitioners have unclear cancellation policies that are arbitrarily enforced. We have all chosen to work in the medical field to help people. Charging fees to patients we care about can be awkward. That said, a good cancellation policy can work as a deterrent instead of a punishment if it’s crafted and managed well.

The goal is to get patients to give you enough notice so that you can offer the appointment to another patient. A concise cancellation policy can be thought of as a contract. The patient agrees to give you that time. A good cancellation policy also lets the staff know exactly how to enforce it consistently.

How to Create an Appointment Cancellation Policy

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to create a better appointment cancellation policy.

1. Help Patients Remember Appointments

The good news is that if you’re a ReminderCall customer you’re already doing this. Most no-shows are about forgetting the time or day of an appointment, and nobody does that on purpose. Give patients a little help by sending appointment reminders. For better results, give your patients a choice between voice, text message or email appointment reminders. What works best for your patient, will work best for you. You might even consider sending out appointment reminders in different languages.

2. Stop Telling Your Patients to Cancel Appointments!

Avoid appointment-reminder commands such as press 1 to cancel or click here to cancel. These not only sound like they are telling the patient to cancel, they make it too easy to do it on impulse. Even the best of us might get tempted to cancel a root canal if it takes one key press!
A better script sounds like this: press 1 to transfer to our office or please call our office at (888) 888-8888 with any questions. Take the word cancel out of your reminder vocabulary. Place the focus back on assisting your patients. Set up a script that lets your staff talk to the patient and make sure they reschedule. As an added bonus your staff can find another patient to book if they learn about an open slot.

3. Charge a Cancellation Fee

Cancellation fees work well with patients who call at the last minute to cancel. In fact, many patients will decide not to cancel once they know that there’s a fee. Some providers charge a nominal fee, while others charge the entire cost of the appointment. Consider what a missed appointment costs you. Add up overhead costs and set a fee that reflects those losses.

4. Consider a Cancellation Cut-Off Time

A 24-hour cancellation policy is not always effective in healthcare. Let’s say your patient has a family emergency at 3 pm. He knows he can’t keep his appointment with you the following morning at 8 am. He’s already missed the 24-hour cancellation window. So why call you at all?

The 24-hour cancellation window doesn’t work that well on weekends either. Is it ok for patients to cancel their 8 am Monday appointment by 8 am on Sunday? Is your staff there on Sunday to reschedule the appointment? Or does this create Monday no-shows?

A different strategy is to set a cancellation cut-off time. For example, let your patients know they must cancel before 3 pm the day before the appointment to avoid a fee. If their appointment is on Monday, the cut-off time is 3 pm on Friday. This gives the staff enough time to offer the appointment to someone from the waiting list. Some appointment types may need an earlier cancellation cut-off. Surgeries and procedures, for example, are difficult to reschedule so you can adjust the cancellation cut-off time as needed.

As an added bonus, you do not have to send reminders 24-hours before each appointment. You may choose to send an appointment reminder one hour before your cut-off time. In this case, patients get enough time to reschedule, regardless of the time of their appointment.

5. Determine When to Waive the Fee

There are instances when you may decide to waive your cancellation fee and that’s fine. The key to a consistent policy is to define exceptions ahead of time. This way, your staff never has to make the decision while the patient is standing in front of them.

For example, many practitioners give each patient one free pass. Some waive the fee if the no-show was unintentional or due to an emergency. Some decide to be more lenient with patients who have dementia or other forms of mental illness. Empower your staff to make the right decisions by including detailed instructions in your policy.

6. Communicate Your Appointment Cancellation Policy to Your Patients

Communication is the key to having an appointment cancellation policy that effectively reduces no-shows. Have all patients sign your appointment cancellation policy. Place a notice in the lobby describing the cancellation fee. Print your policy on patient forms. Post it on your website. Here’s a sample to get you started:

Appointment Cancellation Policy Agreement Template

(Company Name) is committed to providing exceptional care. Unfortunately, when one patient cancels without giving enough notice, they prevent another patient from being seen. Please call us at (800) 888-8888 by 2:00 p.m. on the day prior to your scheduled appointment to notify us of any changes or cancellations. To cancel a Monday appointment, please call our office by 2:00 p.m. on Friday. If prior notification is not given, you will be charged $(insert amount) for the missed appointment.

Please sign below to consent to these terms.

Client Signature (Client’s Parent/Guardian if under 18)


7. Communicate Your Appointment Cancellation Policy to Your Staff

Communicating to your staff is just as critical. Train your staff to communicate your appointment cancellation policy with kindness. Explain that many no-show patients are not irresponsible, they are simply experiencing a problem. If someone cancels at the last minute, train staff to explain that the appointment is an important part of the treatment. Have them suggest that they keep the appointment if at all possible. They can even say that they don’t want to charge them a cancellation fee but will have to abide by the policy. This is an uncomfortable topic, so you may want to provide a script.

Many times such an approach gets the patient to keep the appointment. Most will remember signing your cancellation policy, but if there is a cancellation, your staff will know whether they can waive the fee thanks to the guidelines you have put in place.

The Takeaway

Compassion goes hand in hand with providing great patient care. For a compassionate healthcare provider, it may feel harsh to have a cancellation policy. Try to treat patients with kindness while making sure that they treat your organization fairly. A cancellation policy working alongside an appointment reminder service will reduce no-shows and help your business survive. This, in turn, benefits the health of your practice and your patients.

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