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On-Call Definition: What is On-Call and How Do Answering Services Use It?

Doctor On-Call Talking On Phone

If you’re not familiar with the lingo, on-call (also spelled oncall or on call) refers to a system or protocol for contacting an employee or group of employees who are available, if necessary, for work and/or communication after business hours. Answering services use on-call systems to deliver messages to specific employees. If you’ve ever called your doctors office after hours, you’ve most likely been exposed to how answering services use on-call schedules – you called your doctor, the phones rolled over to the answering service, the operator ended the call with you and notified the doctor scheduled for that evening that you need a call back, you received  a call from the doctor. In a nutshell, that is on-call.

What Industries Use On-Call

Medical professionals and HVAC techs will typically have their answering service use on-call rotations. For medical professionals, doctors are on-call after hours and on weekends, meaning they are available to speak with for medical emergencies. For HVAC technicians, on-call is used to describe the technician available to make an emergency site visit after hours. However, doctors and HVAC technicians are not the only businesses who use on-call rotations. Some examples of other small businesses that rely on on-call systems are:

  1. Property Management Companies
  2. Law Firms
  3. Veterinary/Animal Hospitals
  4. Locksmith Companies
  5. Insurance Agencies
  6. Towing Companies
  7. Restoration Companies

How Do Answering Services Use On-Call?

Every answering service is different, so how each service manages your on-call data will also vary. For example, some services are able to maintain schedules years out in their software, where others may only accept a singular employee – meaning you need to inform the answering service each time the schedule changes. While the mechanism for how answering services access and program on-call schedules may vary, the premise is always the same. You provide the service with information of who to contact and when to contact them, and they contact your employees when necessary.

Once your on-call data is programmed into the answering service’s system,  the agents will know who to contact (the employee on-call), how to contact them (various phone numbers), and when to contact them (only after hours or only in emergency situations). For example, your schedule may show that on Tuesday, Dr. Stacy Brown is on-call from 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM for emergencies. So, any calls received on Tuesday between those times deemed an emergency will be dispatched to her.

Pro tip: Find out from your answering service what phone number messages and calls will be coming from so that you can give your on-call team a heads up. If they do not recognize the number that is calling them, they may miss important phone calls.  

Types of On-Call

There are 6 different methods for contacting your employees where answering services can use an on-call schedule, though you are never limited to 1 of these 6 methods. Many businesses will combine some of the below examples to maximize successful contacts with their on-call personnel.

Does it Cost Extra?

Typically, there is no extra fee to utilize an on-call feature with your answering service. However, depending on how your service bills, you will incur more charges based on the usage that is accrued during the actual on-call attempt. For example, an answering service that bills by the call may charge you for each outbound call they make or each text and/or email they send to reach the on-call personnel.

On the other hand, an answering service that bills by the minute will charge you a per minute rate for each dial out attempt. So, while you may not see an extra charge on your regular invoice, the time spent making the reach outs will be included within your plan’s usage.

On-Call and HIPAA

Since medical offices and hospitals often use answering services to dispatch urgent messages, it’s important to make sure that PHI (private health information) stays protected. Generally speaking, most answering services are HIPAA compliant, so they abide by the regulations outlined by HIPAA. This means that no patient data can be sent via text or email, and no patient information can be left on a voicemail. So, while it does pose some challenges, there are always work arounds.

In regards to messaging, answering services that are HIPAA compliant can either fax messages, or they can give you access to a secure online portal that stores all of your messages in one place. Then they would just send you a text or an email that alerts you of a new message, with instruction to log into your portal. In regards to leaving messages, agents won’t be able to say who called or what it was about, but they can either leave a call back number so you can contact your answering service back to retrieve the information, or you can just log into your portal for the details.

Problems You May Encounter Working With On-Call Schedules

Benefits of Using an On-Call System


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