Picture this – it’s approaching 9 o’clock in the evening, and your office has been closed for a few hours now. Much to your chagrin, you’re still there, chipping away at the mountain of paperwork and patient records that accumulated throughout the day. This is the third night in a row that you’ve missed dinner with your family, and you’re wondering if it’s even worth it. The good news is, there is a solution. Enter this story’s hero: a Medical Answering Service.
Once you’ve made the decision to outsource phone support to an answering service, the next thing you have to decide is how you want the service to handle your calls. Obviously, call center representatives aren’t going to know the ins and outs of your practice. However, there are many ways to give the people answering your line a better feel for what it is that you do and the type of assistance your callers will require.
While answering services may not be able to see patients for you, what they can do is screen calls and schedule appointments, and in some cases, push the information they gather from your callers directly into your CRM software. There’s a lot to consider before you take the plunge, so take a look at the tips and tricks below, and you’ll be well on your way to getting the most out of your call center!
First things first. Any kind of medical practice, or any office where Protected Health Information (PHI) is changing hands, is going to need a HIPAA compliant answering service. Data privacy for covered entities is a requirement of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so you’ll want to make sure that the service you choose is up to speed.
1. Patient information cannot be transmitted via text or email; however, those message delivery methods are still viable, adhering to the following:
2. Fax remains HIPAA compliant, so that is another option for message delivery.
3. Some services may give you access to an online portal where you’ll be able to view all of your messages and listen to call recordings in a secure environment.
4. If you have requested text notification, you may want to delegate internally who will be receiving what. For example, urgent messages might be sent to the on-call physician, while general messages could be addressed by an office manager.
The majority of people who call a doctor’s office will probably want to schedule, cancel, or reschedule an appointment, and hiring an answering service that has the ability to manage your calendar will take a lot off your plate. While you’ll have to do your research on which scheduling platform integrations are available with prospective call centers, in most cases, your service will be able to book appointments directly on your website, integrate with Google Calendar, or use proprietary scheduling software.
Typically, if a service is HIPAA compliant, operators should not be able to view or edit previously scheduled appointments, so cancellation and reschedule requests will need to be handled outside of the calendar. You may want operators to take a message for those calls. For same-day cancellations, it might be beneficial to transfer callers to you during business hours to avoid unnecessary prep for a no-show appointment.
Consider these questions when you’re establishing appointment setting parameters.
Also, try to think of every possible scenario so that the scripting makes sense.
In addition to scheduling appointments, another call type that you can be sure you’ll receive is emergencies. Unless you have an ironclad immune system or ridiculously good luck, you’ve likely been sick at some point. When you don’t feel well, sometimes you just want to talk to your doctor. If it is after hours or no one is available, you may be left telling your story to a message machine. And with busy practices, who knows when that message will be picked up? Having a live operator field emergency calls rather than pushing everyone to voicemail gives patients a sense of relief.
If calls are to be transferred, determine which hours operators should connect calls to you vs. sending a message.
If there is a reach on-call, you may want to find out if you are able to call in to the service and have them patch you through to the patient so that you can protect your own privacy.
You may use any combination of emergency notification such as:
While prescription refill calls are generally not urgent, there are times when a refill request cannot wait. For this call type, you’ll want to add a screening question – perhaps something along the lines of, “Have you already run out?” or, “Are you about to run out?” If the patient has already run out, and it is critical that they re-up, these calls could result in some sort of transfer or urgent text. If the patient still has some time before they run out, your service could give the caller the option to call back during normal business hours or leave their information and have the office follow up with them on the next business day. Patients can also be referred to their pharmacy, as pharmacists can often submit electronic refill requests on the patient’s behalf.
Though FAQs aren’t really part of your “call handling,” they do help out the operators substantially. You don’t want to overload them with information regarding your practice, but they should be able to answer basic questions and have a few details on the more common questions that your callers ask. For example, your FAQs could include the following:
We can all agree that perhaps the most annoying aspect of your first appointment with a new doctor is the time spent filling out a seemingly endless clipboard of paperwork. Perhaps even more annoying than filling it out is the job of the individuals who have to enter every piece of data into the office’s CRM system. Tedious, right? While an answering service can’t do all of your work for you, the right service can be a huge asset to any medical office’s front desk team by asking essential information in that first phone call and sending the details to your records system.
Does your office receive calls from neighboring hospitals, practices, or home care services that may be treating your patients? If so, consider how these calls should be handled when they reach the service. Some information that may be helpful to you would be:
Depending on the facility, issue (e.g., an emergency consult), or time of day, a message alone may not be suitable. You may want certain calls transferred to the office during business hours, and for after-hours calls, a reach on-call protocol may be necessary.
Sometimes, callers will ask to speak directly with a doctor or staff member. While you may not be available to speak with them, you’ll still want them to know that their call is important to you, and you will be in touch with them as soon as you are available. A Specific Person path really comes in handy, especially if you have a number of practitioners and support staff in your practice. Generally, your script would be programmed with a drop-down list of all the individuals that may be requested along with a small identifier next to each name. For example, whom did the caller ask to speak with?
This way, if someone calls and asks to speak with the office manager but doesn’t give a name, the operator will be able to look at this list and see that Ms. Williams is the office manager. If it is important to you to have your answering service seem like your actual office, this minor tidbit of information could create that feel.
Even if you are fully-staffed during business hours, chances are good that you’ll miss a few calls. And no matter what office you run, there will always be someone who tries to reach you after-hours. If you’ve ever called your doctor’s office, only to be met with a super annoying voicemail system instead of a live operator , then from a patient’s perspective, you can see the value in using a service for overflow and after-hours calls. The value for your personnel is that they don’t have to waste precious minutes listening to voicemail. Messages have already been taken and are available for review, so you can immediately begin returning calls and getting patients the assistance they need.
As technology continues to evolve, people and businesses are forced to evolve with it. Many answering services now offer a mobile app that you can download to retrieve your messages. Having this feature available to someone who can’t sit idly by a computer is a must in patient care industries. If you’re out and receive an urgent message, you can log in to your mobile app, view the details of the call, and possibly even listen to it, if your answering service offers call recording.
When you start using an answering service, your first reaction is often to overload the operators with information about your practice, and hope for the best. Would that same approach work for a new in-house receptionist who is just learning the ropes? Not likely. So, while it is important that you provide the service with key FAQs such as address, hours, and a description of what you do, callers and operators alike will have more successful interactions if you stick to the basics. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Even if messages are gathered and sent swiftly, a busy practice may need more than 24 hours to return a patient’s call. That being said, not every patient can wait 24 hours. They may grow weary of sitting by the phone and dial your office again instead, stating that they called yesterday and haven’t heard back. How should your service handle these calls? Should the operator simply take another message? Should the call be considered urgent? Or should they try and patch the call through to the office? Preparing your service for these types of scenarios will ensure that calls are handled as efficiently as possible and minimize frustration on the part of the caller.
What if you only want to use an answering service for after-hours emergencies? If that is the case, then many of the tips above won’t apply – but, there are still options that you can explore to keep call handling crisp.
Having these types of screeners will filter out legitimate emergencies from callers who just want a direct line to you and your staff. In turn, you may have less usage and a lower monthly invoice.
If you’re in the market for a medical answering service, be sure to do your due diligence before signing on. While online reviews may be useful to a degree, nothing compares to your own experience and opinion. That’s where a free trial comes in. Most services will offer a trial period that will give you a solid understanding of how your calls will flow, the professionalism of the operators manning your phones, the availability and help offered via customer support channels, your average minutes usage, and more. To find the best fit for you, take advantage of everything the free trial offers, and place test calls if you’re not ready to forward your lines. The sooner you sign on with the right service, the sooner you’ll be home for those family dinners you’ve been missing!