Befriend the Phone: Improve Call Management at Your Practice

Ah, the telephone. It rings and rings at your practice, taking up hours of your administrative staffers’ time every day. It’s a never-ending source of frustration and energy, but for all the effort it requires, you never earn a dime from it.

Be that as it may, you shouldn’t view the phone as a timewasting money pit but as your ally in achieving high patient satisfaction levels. Here are some tips on turning the telephone from your practice’s foe to its BFF.

Task Calls Effectively
When I worked in a medical office, incoming calls rang on the phones of every employee at the front desk – a common approach. Whichever of the five or six administrative staffers was free would answer the phone and either handle the patient’s request or route the call as appropriate.

That process worked just fine when the office wasn’t very busy, but when all of the front desk attendants were tending to the needs of in-office patients, the phone would ring off the hook and callers sometimes waited on hold for ages.

The attendants were often overwhelmed by the call volume and, yes, sometimes got a little huffy when a simple caller question took their time away from a pressing office issue. It became hard for the staffers to manage the needs of both the patients phoning in (sometimes just ask for the fax number) and the patients checking out.

Having a dedicated receptionist who deals solely with the phone – answering basic questions, routing calls, taking messages – can eliminate some of the mess from call management. Make sure to train your receptionist well on office resources, policies and processes so that as few calls are transferred as possible.

Train for Politeness
Also, make sure that receptionist – and the rest of your staffers – know the importance of being courteous on calls. Good phone manners go a long way toward making the phones friendly for patients and staff.

I’m not assuming that your employees are unpleasant on the phone, but if you haven’t prioritized proper phone service protocol in your training plans, your calls may be more painful than they need to be.

“Physicians should impress on their phone receptionists that they not only make appointments but provide new patients with their initial (and perhaps durable) sense of the physician and the staff,” writes Paul E. Stepansky, Ph.D. “Patients – especially new patients – are not merely consumers buying a service, but individuals who may be, variously, vulnerable, anxious, and/or in pain.  There is a gravity, however subliminal, in that first phone call and in those first words offered to the would-be patient.”

Give customer service training to new and existing employees. Establish a welcoming standard telephone greeting, such as “Good morning, Dr. Argyle’s office. This is Janice. How may I help you?” And encourage staffers to treat every call with respect and attention if they hope to receive such treatment from patients in return.

Lower Your Call Volume
I’m sure that decreasing the amount of phone calls you receive sounds easier said than done, but there really are a number of steps you can take to lower call volume without decreasing communication. For starters, establish a helpful website with such things as your address, fax number and direction information available in multiple high-visibility areas.

Then, use technology to give patients a phone-free means of contacting you. Most patient portal systems enable patients to easily handle many of the tasks that suck up call time: appointment scheduling, lab result notifications, prescription refill requests and bill payment.

“The cost of running a practice can be reduced by using a portal,” says Rosemarie Nelson, a consultant for the Medical Group Management Association. “If we get patients off the phone, we get staff off the phone. If staff aren’t on the phone, they’re doing something else or we need less staff.”

Not ready to invest in portal technology? Dedicate a secure email address where patients can send non-urgent questions and requests. It may not have as much of an impact as a portal, but it will lessen some of your call load so that more priority can be given to clinical concerns.

What is your practice’s phone management plan?