“The patient says she couldn’t get through”.
“She was a new patient. 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 you answer every patient call? Is it 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?
At Designated Medical, our goal is to help our consultants manage and grow their private practices, providing the support needed to enable them to succeed whilst also reducing the stress and pressure of managing a private practice. As part of this commitment, we regularly share our expertise and knowledge, aiming to offer helpful guidance on best practice.
In this article we share our expertise regarding the important challenge of reliably answering patient calls.
Our team of Medical PAs at Designated Medical aim to answer a minimum of 90% of incoming calls every day and they often achieve 100%. They do this through teamwork.
The solution we have adopted is to encourage our Medical PAs to work as a team and support one another. When a patient calls their consultants number, the Designated Medical PA for this consultant will answer the call. But if that Medical PA is already on a call, at lunch or otherwise engaged, the call will be answered by another member of our team who is also familiar with the consultant’s practice and able to handle the call professionally, including booking an appointment and answering most queries.
A culture of call answering.
When your practice phone rings, there is a good chance that the call is a new patient looking to book their first appointment with you and missing it is a missed opportunity. If a new patient gets through to your voicemail, they will probably call the second clinic or doctor on their list and that is why it is so important to create a “call answering culture” within your practice, aiming to answer every patient call.
Too often, we hear comments such as “the phone rings constantly stopping me getting on with my work” but answering patient calls is the highest priority and not answering calls will have a negative effect on the growth of your practice.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Peter Drucker.
This is one of the most significant quotes in business, made by Peter Drucker, a very well-known modern business management guru. He has written 39 books on the subject and is credited with two of the most important business quotes of all of time, of which this is one.
To improve anything you need to understand how well you are performing currently so that you can improve and know that you are improving.
You need to measure how many calls you are receiving each day/ week/ month and most importantly how many of those calls are being answered. Ideally you would regularly monitor the percentage of calls being answered. A sensible percentage to aim for as a starting point is 80% of calls to be answered but 90% would be better. To answer 100% of calls is not impossible but would require significant effort.
If you analyse calling patterns for your clinic, you will see that calls, annoyingly, do not arrive in a routine fashion. 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 day tends to be 9am to 10am, followed by a flurry at lunchtime and at the end of the day. Ensuring you have enough resource to answer all the calls at these busy times, is challenging.
Answering a minimum of 90% of calls is great, but you also need to ensure that the few calls that are answered by voicemail are returned promptly and this can be achieved during those quieter periods but must be done within a truly short period of time.
Technology provides numerous solutions to help you improve call answering. A good telephone system enables you to set up a “hunt group” so that incoming calls are delivered to a group of people automatically and this is the feature that we use at Designated Medical. This ensures that calls are answered as quickly as possible ideally by the Designated Medical PA, but when not possible, by another 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 which is called an automated attendant.
Own your number!
This is a slight aside, but we want to take this opportunity to advise you that it is vital for every consultant/ practice/ clinic to “own” their own telephone number. You will spend significant time and money promoting your telephone number on websites, business cards, hospital websites and insurance company websites and patients will store your number on their mobile phone. Changing your telephone number part way through your career will have negative consequences and we have seen this happen too often. With modern technology, it should be possible to “port” a telephone number from one system to another, but this is not always the case.
The same applies to consultants sharing a telephone number, perhaps because they share a medical secretary. What happens if someone leaves the partnership? Who retains the number? You can’t split in in half!
Please make sure you “own” your own number from day one. It is equally important to “own” your own email address.
Message taking services.
There are numerous call answering bureaus such as Money Penny, specialising in answering calls in a reliable manner and their % answered will be very impressive, for example “we answer 95% of calls in 4 rings or less”. These services are generally large call centres, and your calls will be answered with a pre-determined 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 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. 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.
Auditing your calls
We would also advise performing regular call audits. This is not at all high tech and involves your Medial PA keeping a record of the nature of each call received. A simple checklist on a notepad kept by the phone will suffice.
The calls you desperately do not want to miss are the calls from new patients looking to book an appointment.
On a typical day, say you receive 35 calls, and your audit results tell you that 15 of these are patients calling to confirm the practice address, you can take action to reduce the number of these calls and improving your chances of answering the calls from new patients looking to book an appointment. Simply sending patients an appointment reminder ahead of their appointment, including the practiceaddress and how to find you will work. If you ask your patients to confirm their appointment, I strongly recommend asking them to reply by email as opposed to calling to confirm!
If your audit results tell you that 10 out of the 35 calls each day are from patients chasing their results, then you need to look at why this is happening. Are the results being sent out in a timely manner? Or perhaps patients are being advised that results will be received quickly, setting expectations that are too high?
Many Practice Management Systems (PMS) now offer online booking and if your PMS does, we recommend implementing this on your website. We know that patients, especially the younger demographic, are keen to book online, and we encourage all clinics and consultants to embrace this new technology as it offers patients something they want, and it reduces call volumes. What’s not to love!
Our Top Tips
- Develop a “Call answering culture” – answering patient calls must be viewed as high/ top priority.
- Measure it to improve it – regularly review call answering performance.
- Call audit – why do patients call? Reduce the number of calls where appropriate.
- Technology solutions – Investigate ways your telephone system can help you to improve.
- Own your telephone number – ensure you have a number (and email address) for life.
- Voicemail – Ensure messages are returned promptly.
- Appointment reminders – include address details. Ask patients to email to confirm rather than call.
- Online booking – set up on your website.
- Call answering bureaus/ call centres – use as a backup option and to increase your “opening” times.