The Increasing Importance of the Patient Experience
As more and more hospitals, health systems and academic medical centers embrace value-based care, the concept of the patient experience has become an extremely important measurement of success. This concept constitutes seven of the 33 accountable care organization (ACO) quality measures defined by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and it is increasingly recognized as a key motivator of everything from patient loyalty to how much healthcare providers enjoy their jobs. It’s no wonder patient experience and satisfaction is a top priority for 70 percent of American hospitals (Healthcare Intelligence Network). But what can a hospital do to increase patient satisfaction scores? Patient satisfaction is driven by positive encounters at every point of contact within your organization, and telephone encounters are no exception. Whether the issue is setting or changing an appointment, clarifying a billing issue, asking for directions, refilling a prescription, seeking pre-admission or post-discharge information, or just wanting a little healthcare reassurance, one thing is certain: When people have a positive phone encounter with your team members, they feel more positive about their overall hospital experience. Inversely, when they must wait on hold for one minute or more and encounter apathy or delays, they don’t have a satisfactory experience. A study by Frost & Sullivan Research suggests that being on hold for an extended period of time is the top reason for dissatisfaction, and that it only takes two bad experiences on the telephone to diminish patients’ opinion of a service provider.
With approximately two-thirds of U.S. hospitals utilizing call centers to support patients (Call Centers in Health Care: Effect on Patient Satisfaction), there is an inordinate number of opportunities for these points of contact to affect patients’ perceptions of their experiences. Hospitals maintain call centers for nurse advice, pre-admission education, disease management programs, post-discharge follow up, appointment scheduling, medication refills, marketing campaigns, referrals, triage, billing and collections. It stands to reason that hospitals need to pay attention to their call centers to help ensure the best possible patient experience.
The Rising Costs of Maintaining Call Centers
However, even as the number of hospital call centers steadily increases, the costs of maintaining them are growing as well. Coupled with other rising healthcare costs and declining reimbursements, it’s easy to see why hospitals look to improve call center efficiency by following one or more of the following approaches:
Offload calls to online and automated systems. This may reduce call volume, but research shows that when people need help, they want to connect with a live human being. In fact, a Harris Interactive Customer Experience Impact Report reveals that 75 percent of consumers believe that automated systems force too much time before a live agent can be reached, raising frustration and diminishing satisfaction (Salesforce: The Principles of Customer WOW).
Centralize and outsource call centers to maintain the human connection while reducing costs. Theoretically, this is an excellent idea, but actual results can vary widely. Most third-party call center providers are too specialized — delivering revenue cycle or scheduling/appointment or clinical support services — or not specialized enough, serving multiple industries very generally. That also frustrates callers who either don’t connect with someone who can help them, or who feel like the agent doesn’t know enough to help them. In light of these less than ideal approaches, what can you do? We have provided you with the top ten things to look for in a call center solution for your hospital.
Top 10 List: Call Center Solutions for Hospitals
The key to a centralized, outsourced call center solution that delivers efficiency and enables a positive patient experience can be found in these 10 hallmarks of excellence:
- Broad, deep healthcare expertise. Seek a partner whose extensive healthcare experience and knowledge enables the delivery of scalable call center services across a wide range of hospital functions — all from a centralized location. That will enable you to have one center that actually feels like many. You should have representatives who are able to quickly determine what kind of help each caller needs and have the expertise to offer that assistance or know exactly who else does.
- Personalized attention and accountability. A truly effective call center takes time to adapt to the unique circumstances, personality and experiences of the hospital’s personnel, capabilities and community mix. These call centers should feel and act as if they are an extension of your own staff. Anyone who tells you otherwise is oversimplifying your needs. Expect a single point of contact as well as regular, weekly calls to review progress and identify and resolve issues.
- Extended availability. An outsourced call center should not have to be limited to your daytime work schedule. Consider what the callers in your community need and when they will need it. Then, look to your call center to deliver that level of availability, whether that is Monday – Friday from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. or 24/7. In addition to extended hours of operation, call center representatives should also be versed in or have access to more than 100 languages to improve patient accessibility.
- Transparency. You should have complete visibility into all activity and performance of any call center that is representing your organization. All calls should be recorded and you should be able to access and/or monitor real-time and historical interactions.
- Scalability. Whether you want to start with call center services for one function or more, the center should be prepared to adjust its representative base to match your organization’s needs as they grow and develop over time.
- Security. Make sure that your call center provider has the technology and certifications to ensure uninterrupted service and to secure individual lines of communications for maximum patient privacy.
- Robust infrastructure. Expect dedicated, redundant, high-bandwidth data circuits and hardware, real-time monitoring of critical systems and back-up power to ensure availability within seconds of any interruption.
- Quality. Make sure your providers are much more than a just a set of warm bodies following scripts. Look for rigorous, regimented quality standards and a dedicated quality control team with periodic random testing and screening. Expect recruiting standards that demand soft skills like compassion and empathy as well as call center experience. Insist on regular, ongoing training for all of the representatives. Seek representatives who feel deeply connected and committed to your hospital and its patients, no matter where they are actually based. Make sure that call center representatives are fluent in the same languages as your patient population.
- Investment in representatives. An organization whose call center representatives feel valued and appreciated will work harder to make callers feel that way, too. Look for a call center organization that treats its employees well, providing attractive benefits and paid time off.
- Affordability. Remember that your outsourced call center should offer you significant savings over building and maintaining the call center in house. Look for flexible pricing based on call volume to ensure efficiency and the ability to choose whether to be billed on a per-call or per-minute basis.
The call center is not only the first point of contact that most people have with a hospital, it is often the patient’s most common point of contact. So, it makes sense to make the experience of interacting with the call center as knowledgeable, empathetic and responsive as possible. At the same time, the pressures of today’s healthcare market — especially as hospitals move from volume- to value-based care — demand great efficiency in, order for hospitals to be profitable. The right outsourced call center solution can provide both in a way that delivers benefits to patients and providers, for years to come.
| ||The article, “This Is Your Wake-Up Call: 10 Ways to Improve the Patient Experience,” (PDF, 275 KB) by Patrick DeAngelo, Vice President Customer Operations, McKesson, was originally published in the Q2 2015 issue of the Access Management Journal, the quarterly publication of the National Association of Healthcare Access Management (NAHAM).|