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Ensure callers can always get through

NOW THIS is a thorny subject for patients, medical secretaries and consultants alike.

Here’s two common scenarios:

‘The patient says she couldn’t get through’. ‘She was a new patient. That’s like gold dust. We need to answer every call’.

‘I just received a complaint from a GP who couldn’t get through to refer a patient’.

How do we answer every call? Is that even possible? How many calls are being answered at your practice today? 50%? 90%? Can you measure this?

How do you ensure you offer an exceptional quality of service when it comes to answering patients calls?

Starting with a very basic point: it is vital for every consultant/practice/clinic to ‘own’ their own phone number.

Disastrous consequences

You will spend significant time and money promoting your phone number on websites, business cards, hospital websites and insurance company websites. Patients will store your number on their mobile phone. The prospect of changing your phone number part way through your career can have disastrous consequences. The same is true of consultants sharing a phone number, perhaps because they share a medical secretary.

What happens if someone leaves? Who retains the number? You can’t split it in half! In these days of modern technology, it should be possible to ‘port’ a phone number from one system to another, but this isn’t always the case.

Please make sure you ‘own’ your own number from day one. It is equally important to ‘own’ your own email address.

Measure it

As with most things in life, if we can’t measure it, we can’t manage it. We need to be able to measure how many calls we are receiving to our phone number and, most importantly, what percentage of these calls are being answered.

Ideally, we would review this information on a monthly basis. A sensible percentage to aim for is 80% of calls to be answered, but 90% would be excellent. To answer 100% of calls is not impossible but would be cost-prohibitive in terms of level of resource needed.

There will be busy periods on certain days of the week and at certain times of day. Most people find that Monday mornings are exceptionally busy, but Fridays are quieter. The busiest times of the day tend to be 9-10am, followed by a flurry at lunchtime and at the end of the day.

If we all employed enough resource to answer all the calls at these busy times, we could potentially have wasted resource for most of the day. One solution is to involve additional team members at these busy times, perhaps those who are normally engaged in typing.

I am not personally a fan of receptionists answering calls. There is nothing worse than a patient arriving at our clinics to find themselves ignored for several minutes while the receptionist deals with a call.

If we are consistently answering 80% of calls, we are halfway there, but we also need to ensure that the 20% of calls that are answered by voicemail are returned promptly and this can be achieved during those quieter periods.

Technology provides numerous solutions to help us improve our call-answering service. With a good phone system, you can set up a ‘hunt group’ so that incoming calls are delivered to a group of people automatically. This ensures that calls are answered as quickly as possible by a member of the team. There are other pieces of technology that you may love or hate; for example, the option to press 1 for appointments, 2 for invoicing, 3 for address details and so on.

This is called an automated attendant. There are also call-answering bureaux’s who specialise in answering calls in a reliable manner and their percentage answered are very impressive; for example, ‘we answer 95% of calls in four rings or less’.

Extending ‘opening hours’

These services can be utilised as an overflow service to avoid patients receiving voicemail and can also be used to extend your ‘opening hours’ or even provide a 24-hour service. These services are generally large call centres and your calls will be answered with a predetermined script.

A message will be taken and sent to your clinic by email or text message. There is a place for these services in the private medical world, but ideally most calls should, in my view, be answered by someone who can help the patient by booking an appointment or assisting with their questions, as opposed to simply taking a message.

I would also advise regular call audit. This is not high-tech, but simply asking those who answer the calls to keep a record of the nature of each call. A simple check list on a notepad kept by the phone will suffice.

Remember that the calls we desperately do not want to miss are the calls from new patients looking to book an appointment. On a typical day, say we receive 35 calls, if 15 of these are patients calling to confirm the practice address, then we can act to eliminate those calls. If we can do this successfully, we reduce the overall number of calls and improve our chances of answering the new patients in a timely manner.

We could ensure that when we email the patient a reminder the day before their appointment, we should also include clarification of the practice address and how to find us.

Equally, if we are receiving numerous calls to chase results, then we need to look at why this is happening. Are the results being sent out in a timely manner? Perhaps we are setting expectations that are too high?

Most clinics send out appointment reminders by text or email the day before their appointment and this is very good practice. I would recommend using email and asking each patient to send a quick reply to confirm. I would not ask people to call to confirm!

Top Tips to avoid missing a call

Own your phone number
Ensure you have a number for life

Measure it to manage it
Monthly reviews of our performance will ensure we continue to focus on this key element of practice management

Call audit
Address the reasons why patients are calling and look at ways to reduce the calls that are less productive

Technology solutions
Investigate the ways in which your phone system can support the process

Ensure messages are returned promptly

Appointment reminders
Ensure we include the address and details of how to find us. Ask patients to email to confirm not call

Online booking
Should be embraced by all

Call-answering bureaux/call centres
Can be used as a back-up option

Patient calls are vital and high priority. It is important to have a culture that treats them as such
I will leave you with the famous words of Blondie: ‘Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.’