Healthcare Call Center Considerations

By Kate Bolseth

The healthcare call center remains a public voice of the healthcare industry and the primary contact many patients, prospective patients, and visitors have with the hospital. Being the first interaction, there is a big responsibility to provide exemplary service and set the tone for an overall positive impression.

Pressure from the Affordable Care Act to reduce costs throughout hospitals is helping fuel new communication efficiencies that save time and improve patient care. Technology advances in the contact center have brought the added duties of managing code calls, emergency dispatch, and a general shift to assist hospital staff to streamline overall communications. More recently, call centers are gaining attention as potential revenue generators, with opportunities to perform after-hours answering services to other care providers.

Mobile Is the New Desktop: The widespread adoption of smartphones has dramatically altered the communication landscape. People can search a directory and locate a desired number themselves, no matter where they are.

Employees within healthcare facilities are a mobile bunch, and many hospitals are in the midst of transition, moving towards providing or supporting smartphone usage among their staff. Clinicians, an especially mobile group, expect to quickly and easily reach anyone they need to communicate with. Smartphones allow them access to staff directories and on-call scheduling to facilitate the fast, easy messaging they want and need. The availability of information, effectively at the caller’s fingertips, means a significant increase in direct peer-to-peer communicating. This self-service model increases provider productivity, satisfaction, and efficiency; it also reduces internal traffic through the call center.

The reduction in caller traffic is important because it gives hospital operators the flexibility to spend more time on customer service and provide support for code calls and other messaging. Of course, the operator role is a backup role, with the ability to step in and direct critical communications if other methods fail, and it remains tantamount to patient care and safety.

Clinical Initiatives and Emergency Response: Call centers in clinical settings are involved in multiple applications, and the operator’s role has expanded well beyond answering and directing phone inquiries. Call center staff is expected to have advanced skills in customer service, emergency dispatch, and messaging in order to support these other functions.

Acting as the nucleus of the hospital’s communications, contact centers announce code calls for everything from fires to infant abductions. Providing fast, accurate announcements is crucial to patient and campus safety, and they are not just for the intercom anymore. Code calls are more sophisticated and include instant messaging options, pre-programmed for notifying large groups of employees or specific groups – such as rapid response teams or code responders – on their mobile devices. These prewritten messages and notification trees save critical time in emergencies where seconds count.

Customer Service Advancements: Technology allows call centers to do more with less. In addition to decreased call volume due to smartphones and staff access to internal directories, call centers are also receiving fewer internal calls because of speech recognition software. Speech recognition is able to direct many callers to specific departments or care providers, leaving operators available to handle special requests and provide support for alternate services.

Call recording is another feature that is changing the landscape of contact centers. Call recording enables centers to document proof of correct handling for code calls and emergency responses. It categorizes calls to enhance new operator training, particularly in complex areas such as emergency dispatch. Recording also helps identify opportunities for call handling improvement and future automation to further facilitate call center specialization.

The ability to offer call center specialization and excellent customer service is becoming more important as hospitals and health systems compete with one another for customers. Beyond merely encouraging patients to select the facility for delivering care, call centers are increasingly looking to external primary care providers (PCPs) and other health professionals to generate additional revenue by contracting with the call center for after-hours answering services.

Financial pressure on hospitals is giving rise to these creative, revenue-generating solutions. Advanced operator consoles and Web directories mean that call centers can answer calls from multiple locations and provide individualized greetings for each incoming request (for example, answering with the name of the office the call is being directed from). An after-hours answering service keeps operators engaged during low-volume times and generates revenue for the department.

The Trend Toward Virtualization: Technology has advanced so that not only individuals enjoy mobile freedom and flexibility, but also operators themselves are more mobile and no longer bound to a single, on-site facility. The trend among hospitals is to consolidate into health systems, and these mergers create opportunities to combine resources.

Geographical freedom allows multiple call centers to consolidate into a single hub, reducing overhead operating costs and space requirements. The technological advancements that permit consolidation are also enabling operators to perform their jobs from alternate locations – such as a home office or a satellite center – in the event of a disaster or other emergency.

Changes for Tomorrow: The role of hospital in-patient care is changing. Procedures that used to require hospitalization are now performed in outpatient clinics. Standard lengths of stay have been shortened, and patients are transferred to their homes or rehabilitation facilities sooner. Primary care providers, visiting nurses, and even insurance companies are delivering more continuing care management to monitor patients with chronic diseases and prevent the need for emergency room visits. In short, care delivery is moving to a broader continuum, of which the hospital is becoming a smaller piece.

These changes in the care delivery model will push healthcare operators further into areas of specialization, with call centers offering nurse triage services, patient transfer handling, and appointment scheduling and reminders. Operators, like physicians, are likely to specialize in specific roles, and many may have the flexibility to work from anywhere they can connect to the Internet.

The quest for additional revenue will continue, and entirely new functions may soon be added to the extensive list of call center skills. The call center will change, but as the backbone of critical communications, it will remain an integral part of the healthcare environment.

Kate Bolseth is COO of Amcom and oversees Amcom’s operations across professional services, technical support, information technology, and human resources, reporting to the CEO and president of Amcom’s parent company, USA Mobility.

[From Connection Magazine October 2013]

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