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Appointment cancellations with empathy: How to cancel patient appointments with care (includes sample letter)

Here are 5 tips for a respectful appointment cancellation approach that will help you retain patients.

Physician and medical practice staff members discuss how to write an appointment cancellation letter from doctor to patient

At a Glance

  • According to a Tebra survey, 68% of providers say they need to cancel patient appointments 1 to 10 times a month, yet 42% of patients say they’d switch doctors if they had to reschedule their appointments twice.
  • Lead with empathy when canceling or rescheduling patient appointments. Don’t forget to include a reason and a genuine apology.
  • Offer alternative options for patients in immediate need or those who have difficulty making appointments.

Independent providers face the constant challenge of patient no-shows and late cancellations. While they’re by far the most common cause of patient scheduling issues, there’s another disproportionately more disruptive issue: provider-initiated cancellations.

But things happen. As doctors, you see the same daily struggles and unpredictability as everyone else. You face illness, family emergencies, and personal concerns. Plus, you have to face the unexpected of your profession: handling patients with unanticipated needs that prolong appointments, working patients with more urgent needs into your schedule, and handling emergencies.

Yet, bumping appointments is a delicate issue that can cause disgruntled and frustrated patients, disrupting the doctor-patient relationship and occasionally causing patients to switch providers.

The best way to combat this? Cancel appointments with empathy. 

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Why empathy is essential for canceled appointments

Provider-canceled appointments aren’t all that rare. Of surveyed providers, 68% said they need to bump appointments 1 to 10 times per month, according to the Tebra survey, Tackling patient no-shows and cancellations. But who you’re canceling on and why makes a difference to your patients.

Younger generations have less tolerance for canceled or rescheduled appointments, with 30% of Gen Z patients reporting they’d switch providers. This is followed by Millennials at 27% and Gen X at 22%. 

42% of patients surveyed said they would switch providers after being rescheduled just twice. ”

Overall, 42% of patients surveyed said they would switch providers after being rescheduled just twice.

The good news? Around 83% of patients Tebra surveyed said it was reasonable for doctors to reschedule appointments — but the reason you provide may make a difference.

5 tips to make an appointment cancellation letter polite and authentic 

Since appointment cancellations can impact your practice, here are 5 tips for an empathetic approach.

1. Notify patients when you need to cancel appointments ASAP

Make sure you notify patients as soon as you know you’ll have to cancel an appointment. The closer to the appointment you have to cancel, the more likely you are to inconvenience your patients. They may have had to take off work, arrange child care, or pay for transportation to make the appointment. Do what you can to minimize the disruption to their schedules by letting them know as early as possible.

You or your staff should attempt a phone call regarding appointment cancellations before resorting to other communications. A phone call is the most personal, and if you manage to catch the patient, you can go over rescheduling options. 

A text message or an email works well, too. Just make sure to personalize the message so patients still feel cared about. Include an online scheduling link in the email or text message so they know the next steps to take in their care.

2. Offer a genuine apology when you need to cancel appointments

First, make sure you apologize in every communication. However, since apologies are a dime a dozen these days, put a little more effort into the statement than “We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

Here are some tips on how to sincerely apologize to patients:

  • Step 1: Acknowledge the inconvenience 

Add a little more to the apology by stating why it might be inconvenient. “We know this disrupts your day” or “We apologize for the scheduling conflicts this may cause” are both good ways of showing that you’ve actually thought about how this may impact your patients’ lives.

  • Step 2: Show sincerity with tone

Having to reschedule appointments may seem like just another day in a busy job for you and your staff, but it can cause a lot of problems for patients. Make sure you keep the tone sincere, whether in voice or writing, to give it the importance it deserves.

Let your patient know that their health and well-being remain your top priority, even with the change in plans. ”
  • Step 3: Reaffirm your commitment to their care

Let your patient know that their health and well-being remain your top priority, even with the change in plans. A message like, "I deeply value your health and care, and I am committed to ensuring you receive the attention you need at our next appointment," can make a world of difference. Be sure to reassure the patient that they’ll be seen promptly at their next appointment. 

3. Provide a reasonable excuse

As part of your apology, include a reasonable excuse for why you must cancel their appointment. Patients are generally more forgiving when you provide one.

What do patients consider a reasonable excuse, according to Tebra’s patient survey?

  • 83% say a family emergency
  • 82% say a contagious illness
  • 79% say a personal emergency
  • 49% say seeing another patient with more urgent needs

Notice that 30% drop between a personal emergency and seeing another patient? That’s where patients draw the line. However, this may vary depending on your medical specialty and how life-threatening the other patient’s medical issue may be. Consider sharing very general details to help your patients understand that they were rescheduled for legitimate reasons.

Patient Perspectives Report

4. Share appointment rescheduling options

Now that you’ve told patients their appointment is canceled, it’s important to provide an option to move forward. 

When possible, ask another provider if they can cover some of your appointments for the day and give patients that option. According to Tebra’s survey, 78% of patients said they would be comfortable seeing another provider at the practice if theirs wasn’t available. Although it’s possibly the most difficult to facilitate, this option is best for your patients.

Otherwise, offer to reschedule patients’ canceled appointments as soon as possible. Provide several options, and be flexible when it comes to rescheduling. Patients might have trouble moving their schedules around again.

When possible, ask another provider if they can cover some of your appointments for the day. ”

Consider offering a telehealth appointment to make it easier for those who struggle to get to the practice. 

Remember that a general lack of appointment availability could cause patients to switch healthcare providers, so do what you can to accommodate rescheduled appointments.

Don’t forget to send a follow-up appointment reminder with their newly scheduled time. 

5. Offer your thanks for the patients’ understanding

Don’t forget to thank your patients for understanding when you need to cancel appointments. Whether a simple “Thank you for your understanding” or “Thank you for your flexibility,” it shows you recognize patients for accommodating your staffing needs.

By thanking your patients for their understanding and flexibility, you not only acknowledge the inconvenience caused but also reinforce a positive and respectful doctor-patient relationship. This approach helps build trust and loyalty, ensuring that patients feel valued and cared for, even in the face of necessary changes.

Sample patient cancellation letter

Here's an example of an empathetic appointment cancellation letter from doctor to patient that you can personalize to suit your needs:

Dear [Patient name],

Unfortunately, I need to cancel your appointment for [date/time] at [practice location].

[General details of urgent matter] have occurred, and I won’t be able to be present at the scheduled time.

I know this disrupts your day, and I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience. 

As an alternative, our practice can [choose all that apply]:

  • Offer that you can see another practice provider during your appointment time slot
  • Offer a telehealth appointment for [date/time] or [date/time]
  • Offer to reschedule your appointment [provide online scheduling link or office phone number]
  • Offer a referral to [another provider/urgent care]

We deeply value your health and care, and we are committed to ensuring you receive the attention you need at your next appointment. 

Thank you for your understanding, and please contact us at [office phone number and email] if we can assist with scheduling another appointment or alternative urgent care needs.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

What should you do if the patient is already in the waiting room?

Canceling an appointment when the patient is already in the waiting room — or worse, if the patient has already been waiting past their appointment time — is an especially sensitive topic. 

Here are some tips to handle this challenging situation:

  • Deliver the message in person, if possible, or have a senior staff member do it. A patient has already given their time, so make sure someone can give them a face-to-face conversation. Use all the tips above to make it sincere, with a clear explanation and apology.
  • Offer an immediate alternative. See if another doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant at your practice can see the patient on the same day. If there’s an urgent need, provide some general care advice or offer to refer them to a nearby clinic or urgent care. However, tread lightly. Some patients feel put off when directed to another location and may not return.
  • Compensate for the inconvenience: Offer some assistance to reimburse the patient for their time when feasible. Maybe you can waive their fee at the next visit or provide a discounted treatment in the future. It doesn’t have to be much, but a little goes a long way in acknowledging their flexibility.

What if you’re just running behind? Make sure to be honest with patients about the wait — don’t tell them it’ll be a 10-minute wait if it’s really closer to an hour.

Also, consider offering patients in the waiting room a bottle of water and a snack. It’ll show that you care about taking up more of their time rather than acting like the wait is just business as usual.

If there's a communication or scheduling error, see what can be done differently in the future. ”

Don’t forget to pause and look back to see if anything could be done differently to prevent last-minute schedule changes. For example, if patients are coming in post-surgery or have a significant diagnosis, allot more time to see that patient on the next visit. If it’s a personal or family emergency, you know it’s unlikely to happen frequently. But if it’s a communication or scheduling error, see what can be done differently in the future.

Sometimes, it’s unavoidable, but overscheduling can lead to longer wait times and more rescheduled appointments. Try to leave some buffer time between appointments in case they go over. It’ll also help you leave room to squeeze in patients you’ve had to reschedule to shorten their wait time.

A few more things to keep in mind when canceling patient appointments

Keep these things in mind when rescheduling patient appointments.

  • Get ahead of billing issues: Keep everyone informed of rescheduled appointments — especially your billing department. You don’t want them to send out bills for canceled appointments or no-shows accidentally. While this simple mistake may be easy to fix, it may shock patients and frustrate them even more.
  • Let patients vent: Patients may need to vent about the experience at their next visit, so be prepared. They may be wondering, “What does it mean when a provider cancels an appointment?” Hear them out about missed work, the cost of transportation, etc., but don’t let it derail their appointment. Make sure you give them ample attention despite their dismay.
  • Be appreciative of your staff: Some things are unavoidable, and your staff understands that better than most. But they’re also on the front lines, handling patient concerns, making the rescheduled appointments, and doing extra work to cover for the missed time. Make sure you acknowledge their hard work too.

Turning cancellations into patient care

Schedules can change as quickly as health conditions in the world of healthcare, but there’s an art to canceling patient appointments. It’s essential to navigate the delicate balance with empathy to maintain a strong doctor-patient relationship.

The key takeaway? Approach each cancellation as an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to patient care. Every time you communicate with a patient is a chance to demonstrate understanding, flexibility, and genuine concern. In every rescheduled appointment lies the chance to reinforce your dedication to their health and well-being, ensuring that even in times of change, your patients feel valued, heard, and cared for.

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Tips for Tackling Patient No-Shows and Cancellations

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Rebecca Slawter

Rebecca Slawter is a seasoned freelance content and copywriter focusing on B2B SaaS. Bringing nearly a decade of experience, she leverages her skill set to create dynamic, compelling copy that resonates with her clients and their audiences. California-born and bred, she uses her love for writing to help global brands tell their story.

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Drew Sutton

Dr. Drew Sutton is a board-certified ENT physician. He has vast experience in treating all aspects of ENT, with particular interests in disorders of the ear and nasal and sinus disease. During his career, he started and managed an independent, single-specialty medical practice in a large metropolitan area.

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