A telephone answering service is a service that large and small businesses use to provide 24/7 live customer support, keep better track of inbound communication, reach out to employees letting them know about urgent situations that require their attention, and more. An answering service can be a pre-packaged service where the operator gathers basic information to take a message, or utilize custom developed scripts and protocols for the operators to follow. The complexity of the answering service really depends on the businesses needs, and sometimes even the size of the company.
With respect to medical offices, most every physician, hospital, or medical professional uses an answering service in some form or another. While answering services have tremendous advantages for medical offices – like enabling 24 hour communication, if they aren’t properly configured, they can have some disastrous disadvantages. If you’re researching medical answering services, we’re here to help guide you in the right direction so that you can avoid potential pit falls and ensure your practice protected.
Avoid HIPAA Voilations
Pitfall: Violating a patient’s private health information.
Medical professionals have to strictly abide by HIPAA. Whether they are using an answering service or not, protecting patients’ private health information is key in maintaining a successful, trustworthy business. However, for medical professionals that are looking to outsource their patient communication to an answering service, many might wonder how safe their business is in the hands of a third party vendor, and how seriously that vendor takes HIPAA compliance.
How to avoid it: Make sure your service is taking HIPAA compliance seriously. HIPAA compliant answering services will have things like:
- A secure messaging system where no patient information gets transmitted over text, email or voicemail.
- A secure online portal where you can check your messages.
- A Business Associates Agreement with all medical customers.
Keeping Medical Data Secure
Pitfall: Hacked systems can lead to data breaches.
Around 1,300 businesses felt the repercussions of a data breach last year, with over 400 million records exposed. 9 million of those records were from the medical and healthcare industry alone. With more and more medical practices switching from paper records to electronic records, data breaches are becoming more common, which means the need for protecting patient information is at an all time high. Medical professionals need to make sure their own infrastructure is secure. And, if they’re using answering services, they need to ensure that the information the answering service keeps is just as secure.
How to avoid it: In order for your answering service to provide secure services to your medical practice and patients, they should have things like:
- Agents that don’t have access to their cell phones or writing implements at their work station.
- Building and rooms that are restricted with keys or pass-codes.
- Firewalled agent computers so outside websites are inaccessible.
- Unique user logins and passwords that can be tracked and assessed.
- Security policy that extends to PCI DSS compliance so that all credit card and payment information stays secured.
Giving Out Wrong Information
Pitfall: Operators giving out false information.
New always takes a bit of adjusting. Whether it’s getting used to a new computer or car, everybody needs some time to get acquainted. The same goes for answering service operators. Of course they won’t know everything right away, but the quicker they catch on, the better. If your patients are always being told “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” by your answering service operators, they’re going to start to question the quality of your practice. What’s even worse, is if your operators play doctor and give out false information, which may result in a loss of business, or worse, a lawsuit.
How to avoid it: Equip your operators with frequently asked questions which will help them answer questions and provide up to date, correct information. And remember, any time something changes within your practice, keep your answering service in the loop. Here are some great FAQs to help keep your answering service on top of the game:
- Do you accept insurance? If so, what kinds?
- Do you offer a payment plan if patients don’t have insurance?
- Can patients pay out of pocket?
- What do you specialize in?
- Do you require referrals?
- What are your business hours?
- Do you have multiple locations?
- How long are appointments?
- Do you offer Saturday or evening appointments?
Giving Out Medical Advice
Pitfall: Operators giving medical advice.
Aside from suggesting they call 911 if they are having a true medical emergency, answering service operators should never try to offer medical advice to patients. The only people that should be providing medical advice are the people who are medically certified to do so. Having non-certified people dishing out medical advice can not only put your patients at risk, but can also put your practice in the hot seat for a lawsuit.
How to avoid it: Ask how the service handles situations where the caller asks the operator for advice. Ideally, the operators should have received training on stock responses. For example, saying something like the following will help you avoid issues: “I apologize, but I am not a trained medical professional so unfortunately I cannot provide any suggestions. However, I can certainly get this message over to the on-call doctor and have your call returned as soon as possible.” This response helps inform the caller that the operators are not certified medical professionals, but assures them that help is on the way.
Problems with Hold Times
Pitfall: Patients waiting too long to speak to someone during a medical emergency.
As much as HIPAA compliance and protecting patients privacy plays a part in running a successful practice, the happiness and overall well being of your patients is crucial. When patients in need are greeted with cold hold music instead of a warm voice, it can lead to issues. A patient’s health could deteriorate the longer they wait, and in some circumstances, may even prove fatal. If this happens while a patient is waiting on hold to speak to you or someone in your practice, you may be held liable for patient or medical negligence.
How to avoid it: Here are some ways you and your answering service can combat long queues:
- Making sure they use a system to help distribute calls evenly to appropriate operator groups.
- Always have a phrase like “If this a medical emergency, dial 911” in the greeting before the hold queue.
- Compare past trends in volume to plan and staff up accordingly.
- Encourage customers to provide notice in advance when they are expecting a large spike in volume.
- Provide on-demand hold reports so customers can get an in-depth look at their call activity.
- Utilize Virtual Queuing systems and control your customers experience. In a virtual queue, callers will be given the option for a call back, or they can choose to wait for the next available rep.