Do Patients Love You, but Hate Your Phones?

By Lippman, Helen | Medical Economics, September 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Do Patients Love You, but Hate Your Phones?


Lippman, Helen, Medical Economics


Confusing menus, canned ads, irksome music, assurances that

your call is important." And waits that border on eternity. Is this any way to greet patients?

Doctor's office, can you hold?" That's a common-indeed, a ubiquitous-greeting for patients calling medical practices these days. Michael 0. Fleming, an FP at The Family Doctors in Shreveport, LA, was jolted into realizing just how common it was when a patient confided that he'd taken to announcing, "I'll hold," the moment the receptionist answered the phone.

What's the alternative? For some practices, it's an "automated attendant" that asks the caller to select from a range of options.

The Family Doctors had one for a while, but patients hated talking to a machine. "They complained so much that one day we just unplugged it," says Lisa Britt, the group's administrator.

Even if you have an automated response system that directs callers to live operators for appointments, refills, and so forth, patients are likely to be left on hold if the office can't cope with phone volume. As a result, they hang up and either call back angry or don't call back, which can lead to adverse clinical consequences. It can also hurt your bottom line.

The Family Doctors group vastly improved its ability to answer calls by spending $75,000 on a new Toshiba phone system that enables receptionists to take most calls as they come in. Within weeks after this system was installed, just 10 to 15 percent of calls were going into a queue, and those that did rarely remained there for more than a minute and a half, says Britt.

Among the features that helped create this miracle: a queue board that reveals how many calls are holding and for how long; headsets for employees on the move, such as medical records staff intercom and paging features; and the ability to determine whether a call has been answered and the party is being helped.

While Britt credits the technology for the rapid turnaround, there were also months of planning and work-flow analysis, she notes. So don't assume a sophisticated phone system will solve your problems by itself. Conversely, if you can improve how your office functions, you might not need a new phone system at all. Low-tech, low-cost strategies can reduce the number of patients who are placed on hold and the length of time they wait.

At Tonawanda Medical Associates in Buffalo, for instance, phone volume and on-hold time dropped significantly after Allyn M. Norman, a solo internist, changed over to same-day scheduling, which allows patients to see him the day they call for an appointment.*

"Patients seen right away don't call again to move up an appointment because they feel sicker, for example, or to request a prescription:' says Joann Gielow, a veteran Tonawanda staffer. And fewer phone calls mean less paperwork for the practice, she notes: "We normally have to write down a phone message and then document it in the chart, but that's not necessary for patients who will be seen in the next few hours. Conversations are shorter when you can offer a caller a same-day appointment"

Measure the demand on your phone system

To improve your system for handling phone calls, you first need to measure the demand. That means finding out how many calls your office receives each day, what they're for, when volume is heaviest, and how many callers fail to get through, says Pat Pickering, a consultant with Coleman Associates, based in Pegram, TN. Yet many practices have no idea what these numbers are, she observes.

"Some have phone systems capable of tracking things like the number of incoming calls and how many callers are on hold:' says Pickering. "But they may not know that the function exists or have any idea of how to use it. Formal training tends to fade away as staff come and go, and huge amounts of knowledge are lost." If your system lacks tracking capability, she advises, simply have phone operators tally the number of incoming calls and the reason for each one over a week or so.

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