On the surface, it sounds like one of the simplest procedures undertaken at a health system: answering the phone. But anyone who works at a health system knows it is not that simple.
May 15, 2023 /MedCity News/ – Patients call for a wide variety of reasons. Some just want to know where they should park when they arrive for a doctor’s appointment. Others may have complicated medical questions or issues with their bills, either of which can make callers frustrated and anxious.
To ensure a positive experience, health systems strive to handle patient calls with a balance of compassion and efficiency. However, balance is increasingly difficult to find as patient access contact centers and switchboards face the same critical staffing challenges as other hospital departments.
Turnover and burnout among patient access contact center staff not only raise the cost of recruiting and training. They also endanger the quality of the patient experience, as the remaining staff must manage a heavier volume of calls. When inbound calls exceed available agents, staff have less time to handle more complex requests. Stress levels rise as the call queue fills up with people waiting on hold.
“Patient access agents and hospital switchboard operators have incredibly complex, challenging jobs,” says Cristin Shields, head of customer operations at Parlance, a company that has been helping hospitals and health systems enhance and automate call handling since 1996.
Phone calls aren’t going away, no matter how strenuously health systems try to direct patients to their online portals and other communication tools. “You have to meet people and hear people where they are, not where you want them to be,” says Shields.
And the phone is often where they are. Some health systems report getting two or three calls per patient appointment. A portion of the patient population will accept being pushed to a portal for things like cancellations, reschedules, prescription refills, billing questions, etc., but many will not. Some patients want to speak to a person when they have a complex question. Others call because they are used to doing so when trying to reach a patient’s room or they have a question about the gift shop or parking.
Health systems don’t have to treat every call the same. They can tap into today’s advanced voice-recognition technology and conversational AI to make the process more efficient, both for patients and support staff.
Speech-powered Conversational AI technology solutions like intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) automatically route routine calls, as well as handle redundant tasks in the patient access center, like providing directions or cancelling an appointment. Human agents, free from the burden of low-level tasks, are more available to handle complex calls – working at the top of their skillsets.
“It’s the right balance of live support and automated support, given in the right context, that makes for a good patient experience,” says Sheila Kelly, an executive at Parlance.
IVAs utilize conversational AI and integrate into EHR systems. This eases the burden on patient access contact center staff, who see fewer people in their queue and are therefore able to spend more time on the complex calls they have both the skill and compassion to handle. Indeed, healthcare leaders surveyed in 2022 by Deloitte listed “investing in technology to give time back to workers” as one of the key strategies for managing the industry’s talent shortage.
Automated systems also reduce the burden of internal calls. Doctors, nurses, and staff constantly communicate with other providers and health system departments. Modern, conversational solutions that harness the power of voice-recognition technologies connect them quickly and seamlessly.
“That’s an even bigger win for a lot of health systems,” says Kelly, noting that a change can have an immediate impact on both ROI and employee engagement. “It’s the right balance of AI and human support in healthcare that makes the most impact on patients, staff and business operations.”
By Joel Berg