Gone are the days of trying to get through a busy phone line to reschedule a consultation session. Now, patients can do this with their smartphones or go online, and staff can book these for patients directly with the clinics

Patients can now use SingHealth’s very own smartphone app, Health Buddy, to manage their medical appointments, after a revamp of the entire appointment system.

With a few clicks of the button, patients can access their own appointments and make changes without calling the appointment line or Call Centres of the various institutions. And they can do this anywhere, anytime, throughout the year.

An app for greater convenience and faster response

Users need to download the Health Buddy app (compatible with both iPhone and Android) onto their smartphones and use their SingPass for access.

A few clicks will bring them to a personalised appointments page where they can see all their sessions in SingHealth institutions on the screen. This makes cross-checking dates and times a breeze.

There will also be a list of available slots, some exclusively available through the app and online.

This way, users get a bigger selection than if they phoned the Call Centres and find it easier to arrange sessions that fit their own schedules. Appointments can also be rescheduled 13 months ahead instead of 30 days.

As a safety check, there are reminders to ensure patients have enough medication to last until their next session.

Bypassing the Call Centres of SingHealth institutions has also reduced delays caused by busy phone lines. SingHealth gets nearly two million calls a year, mostly enquiries about appointments, opening hours, medication and medical reports. Most call to check, reschedule or cancel appointments – things which can easily be done electronically.

Since the mobile connection was launched in April 2014, more people have used their phones to manage their appointments, and the Call Centres have noticed a drop in calls. “We understand that patients get frustrated trying to get through the phone lines and having to repeatedly check slot availability. We improved the system so that they can manage their appointments electronically instead of by calling. The new platforms help them do just that,” said Mr James Toi, Chief Operating Officer (Ambulatory), Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

“We understand that patients and their caregivers are busy individuals and would like handy tools to better manage their appointments. The Health Buddy app and online appointment system options now offer them convenience and empowerment, 24/7, 365 days a year," said Ms Joyce Quek, Manager, Marketing Communications, who developed the app interface.

Enhancements to the e-appointment website

The existing online electronic appointments (e-appointments) system was also enhanced. Now, users only need to go to one website, (www.singhealth.com.sg/appointments) even if they want to reschedule multiple sessions in different institutions. Previously, they had to go to each institution’s website to do this. If an unexpected business trip crops up, rescheduling is only a click away, online or via a smartphone.

Currently, e-appointments are for consultations with doctors only, but there are plans to expand them in the future to other sessions such as physiotherapy, special tests and scans. The SingHealth institutions that can be accessed by e-appointments are:

  • the Specialist Outpatient Clinics (SOC) at SGH;
  • KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH);
  • National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS);
  • National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS);
  • National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS);
  • Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC);
  • the nine SingHealth Polyclinics (SHP); and
  • Changi General Hospital (CGH), which is under Eastern Health Alliance.

Considerations and exceptions

While things have been made easier for patients, they are still advised to try as far as possible to stick to their original appointment dates. This is for medical and treatment purposes.

Last-minute changes also create unnecessary administrative work for staff who have to scramble to slot in replacement patients, when they already have their hands full serving patients.

There are also exceptions to the rule. Some appointments cannot be changed or rescheduled. These are cases when the patients’ conditions and care plans need close monitoring, such as diabetes, pregnancy, cancer and heart problems.

The case of the SingHealth Polyclinics

About 15 per cent of calls to SingHealth’s Call Centres are internal, with the bulk coming from its nine polyclinics. They are mostly from polyclinic staff calling to book referral appointments in specialist clinics for patients. Usually, an average call would take between 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes longer, with half the time spent just trying to get through to the Call Centres.

Typically, polyclinic staff had to go back and forth between Call Centres and patients, trying to match the slots offered with the patients’ availability. If no suitable slots could be found, they would ask patients to try on their own later – not something patients were generally keen to do.

In the revamped system, polyclinic staff can book appointments directly with individual institutions or clinics without going through the Call Centres, saving time for staff and patients.

According to Ms Fiona Sun, Executive, Clinic Operations, SingHealth Polyclinics - Outram, it has always been difficult to get through the phone lines. “Sometimes, when we finally get an appointment, the patient may find it unsuitable and request a change. We will then call the hotline again. Meanwhile, there would usually be a long queue of patients waiting, so we really couldn’t afford to spend 15 to 20 minutes on each referral. So, we might ask the patient to call the institution himself. Sometimes the patient refuses and insists we call anyway. Now, it’s great that we can make the appointments ourselves.”

The revamped system - fast and friendly

SingHealth’s revamped appointments system is the result of a year-long project by a multi-pronged team from different SingHealth institutions.

The result – a faster, friendlier, more intuitive system that takes fewer steps to navigate. The biggest change, which had the most impact, was the removal of the need for everyone to go through the Call Centres.

Now, staff from the polyclinics, hospital wards, the Department of Emergency Medicine, and the Ambulatory Surgery Centre, to name a few, can book specialist consultations for patients from computer terminals on their premises. They simply log into the appointment system and pick out slots. Patients get their bookings faster, and phone lines are freed up for those who really need them, such as the elderly. There is also no more need for emails, faxes and paper communication between institutions.

Associate Professor Agnes Tan and Ms Lee Chen Ee, Co-Chairs of the Appointment Access Task Force, said the multi-functional team was tasked to create a staff-friendly system that provided a seamless experience for patients.

Using IT as an enabler, the team unified mobile applications and internet sites, allowing patients to access all their appointments in SingHealth institutions with one click, through a single website.

“We simplified the appointment booking system, and trained and empowered more staff to book intra- and inter-institution appointments directly through the system, bypassing our Call Centres. The result was that dropped call rates fell from more than 50 per cent to less than 10 per cent. Patients got their appointments faster, and staff were empowered and became closer, working together to provide a more seamless experience for patients,” said Prof Tan, who is also Director, Medical Affairs, and Chairman, Division of Ambulatory & Clinical Support Services, SGH.

Ms Lee, who is also Director for Office of Service Transformation, said the task force is one of several commissioned by SingHealth to transform the patient experience.

“What we’ve tried to do in the Task Force was to look at existing processes with fresh eyes. Instead of saying this is the way things are as a default, we tried to ask ourselves why we can’t change the way we do things, to serve our patients better.”

Almost 200 SingHealth staff are now trained to use the appointment system and have also been coaching patients to go electronic too. They even hope to convert senior citizens who own mobile phones to it, as they believe many want to be independent and not depend on their children to manage their appointments for them.

Response to the revamp has been good. A few months after the system went into use, the number of calls for polyclinic referral appointments to some SingHealth institutions showed a drop.

Ref. Q15