Are contact centers the answer to patient engagement and medication adherence?

Jennifer Richard, director of call center operations at McKesson, suggests that pharmaceutical companies can utilize contact centers to offer behavioral support and drive patient adherence.

The increasing engagement of informed patients in the financing and delivery of their own health care services is considered by many as the key to improving health outcomes and lowering health care spending. One opportunity to engage patients in their own care is the traditional customer call center operated on behalf of a pharmaceutical company. McKesson spoke with Richard about how transforming call centers into contact centers can ignite conversations with patients about their own health and well-being.

How did the traditional call center operate and why did patients use them?

Richard: The traditional call center was historically a switchboard operated by a person with little or no health care experience who transferred incoming calls to another person who could answer the customer's question. People typically called a pharma call center because they had a question about their medication not answered by their doctor or one that came up after they started therapy.

What trends in health care are driving the need for call centers to evolve into something more?

Richard: One major trend affecting pharma call centers is health care consumerism. That's changing the very nature of the call center conversation. First, patients expect to speak with someone who can help them immediately, not be transferred or put on hold. Today's contact center staff must be more than just phone receptionists. They need to be subject matter and patient support experts. Second, the reasons why patients call for support have changed. As tech-savvy health care consumers, patients have already looked up their medications online or discussed them through social media. They've already found out all the basic information they need before they call. So they're calling for other reasons.

What are some of the new reasons patients contact call centers?

Richard: Much of it is behavioral support based on where patients are on their journey related to a new medication. Let's say the person is a newly diagnosed diabetic. That can be overwhelming. A tremendous amount of information is available online about how to control diabetes through medications and lifestyle changes. The contact center can distill that information down to digestible bites for the patient and start that ongoing dialogue about how to manage the chronic condition. Then agents can triage to further support according to the challenges uncovered. For example, they can discuss barriers to managing diabetes or taking medication as prescribed. They can help overcome financial barriers by enrolling the patient into a co-pay card program. Having that personal, hands-on interaction makes a huge difference in how patients perceive what's happening to them. That's how a contact center is different from a call center. You can't do that on a website. You may not even get that from a doctor or pharmacist because they just don't have the time to spend on that level of patient support.

How do those new reasons change the job responsibilities and skill set of the call center staff?

Richard: It takes a different kind of person to uncover patients' adherence barriers and have a truly interactive, two-way dialogue. The traditional call-center person read from a script and because it was primarily one-way, the ability to create lasting behavior change was limited. With dynamic, two-way conversations, contact center agents can utilize more personalized and targeted messaging to improve the patient experience, medication adherence, and ultimately the health outcome. In this approach you still have your script, but you have to be personable and knowledgeable in order to engage the patient in that behavior-focused conversation. Unless you're going to have clinical conversations, that person doesn't necessarily have to be a nurse practitioner or a pharmacist. You need someone who understands human behavior. That's a necessary part of the new skill set. One study showed that it takes $16,900 to train a new call center agent (PDF, 617 KB). You want the right kind of person for that kind of money, which is why outsourcing the call center function to an experienced vendor is an increasing trend.

What about outreach strategies after that initial call? How do you keep the conversation going?

Richard: We refer to them as Behavioral Call Campaigns, and we package our experience from an in-bound perspective. We provide live out-bound calls to patients, serving it up to patients in the way that they want to be supported. Some people like phone calls, some don't. Some people like e-mail, some don't. Same with everything from direct mail to webinars to texting. Working collaboratively with our pharmaceutical clients, and agency partners, we provide patients with a variety of support tools like adherence calls, co-pay card program support information, patient assistance programs and behavior and life-style tips. And we balance what patients want to know with where they are within their journey. You really have to be where the patient needs you to be; a contact center must have the technology to support different types of outreach tactics as well as the people and processes to support the technology.

Are there any pitfalls that contact centers should avoid?

Richard: There are definitely some don'ts in the call center space.

  • Don't assume that every program needs live 24/7 support. It may not be cost effective. However, when you use automated phone menus, provide patients with the option of real-time support as needed.
  • Don't have staff inadequately trained on how to use your technologies. Instead make sure your customer relations management tools are intuitive and easily used by agents so they're not stumbling around when they're working through something with someone over the phone.
  • Don't assume one size fits all when it comes to outreach. Build consumer choice into your strategy.
  • Don't assume you're doing it right the first time. You should constantly be learning, improving and enhancing the customer's experience, thus improving the campaign effectiveness.

How should a pharmaceutical company measure the success of its call center?

Richard: It depends on the brand and the goals for the campaign. Some measure success by fill rates. Some measure it by prescriptions written. Many of our current campaigns are measured by the performance of their integrated co-pay card program activity. Some don't expect a hard financial return and consider the support they provide their patients as a necessary marketing expense. Some just want the feedback from customers. In the study I mentioned earlier, nearly 90 percent of the pharma brands measured call center performance by number of inbound calls. Mutually agreeing on the measurement objectives during campaign development is crucial. The most important thing to remember is that there's a difference between a call center and a contact center. The contact center approach will help get a pharmaceutical company the results it wants, and the support its patients deserve.

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About the author

McKesson editorial staff is committed to sharing innovative approaches and insights so our customers can get the most out of their business solutions and identify areas for operational improvement and revenue growth.


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