Want to Improve the Patient Experience? Fix the Office Phone

Most online complaints are about poor office phone communication skills

Vanguard Communications’ social media research has found that 53 percent of online healthcare complaints were about poor communication skills, particularly office phone communications. The good news about this problem is really good: it’s not that hard to fix. In this edition of “The Wired Practice,” Ron Harman King of Vanguard Communications, explains how to get started.

Watch the video on MedPage Today

Video transcript

The patient experience. Alright, let’s see a show of hands. How many of you have heard this three-word phrase at least once in the last 90 days? Okay, good. I see it’s the great majority of you.

A quick search on the internet should leave no doubt that the patient experience is one of the buzziest of buzz phrases in healthcare today. I personally did a quick Google check on this phrase, and got 19 million results in sixty-eight hundredths of a second.

That’s a lot – roughly about the same number of sources I get when I search Google for information on heart attack, influenza, venereal disease and the U.S. Constitution. Meanwhile, when I check Amazon.com, I find that the patient experience is the subject of more than 3,000 books.

Not coincidentally, I already own quite a few of these books. And I regularly read journal articles, newsletters and websites on the patient experience. Out of all this self-study, here’s my big takeaway: everyone seems to be robotically repeating the same phrases over and over again – compassionate care, patient-centered care, relationship-centered care and so on.

It’s not that those aren’t important principles. Rather, the very troubling part is that we seem to place the burden on the shoulders of doctors. A common assumption is that patients’ poor healthcare experiences are mostly the fault of doctors – that if only doctors were nicer toward patients.

That’s just plain wrong. My firm has analyzed tens of thousands of patients’ reviews on social media. The finding that surprises many a physician is that patients give good healthcare reviews twice as often as bad reviews. Two-thirds rate their care at four or five stars out of five possible. Only 30 percent give one or two stars.

Social media complaints on office phones

The advent of social media has given us a view into the collective mind of patients like never before. To be sure, there are ample criticisms about poor bedside manner and rushed, taciturn physicians. However, the huge preponderance of social media complaints is about what happens around doctors – at the reception desk, in the waiting room, with the billing department and especially on the office phone.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that after barriers to access and rising costs, the biggest problem in healthcare lies in one of the oldest technologies – the office phone. After you’ve read a few thousand online reviews by patients, you get the message loud and clear: patients get sick and tired of being placed on hold indefinitely, of hearing an unanswered telephone ringing incessantly in a clinic or hospital, and of not getting calls returned after repeated messages.

Our social media research has found that 53 percent of online healthcare complaints were about poor communications, particularly phone communication skills, followed by 35 percent of complaints about long wait times. The good news about this problem is really good: it’s not that hard to fix. The place to start is with diagnostics, just like in medicine. Begin by evaluating the data. Then act on it.

Analyzing office phone problems

Virtually all modern telephone systems currently in use at hospitals and clinics offer what’s called analytics. This is data you can extract from your phone system’s software, and it reveals reams of information about each call, from time of day, to duration of the call, to how many rings before an answer or going to voicemail, and so on. Here’s a sample from a diagnostic we were able to easily export from the telephone software and convert into tables and charts.

The first great revelation is that this provider group was experiencing a call-abandonment rate of 22.6 percent overall. That’s right, nearly 1 in 4 callers during business hours were hanging up before getting an answer or voicemail. Imagine their frustration!

Imagine how many new patients this practice is losing! Imagine how many existing patients they’re driving away! Industry standards say this should be less than 10 percent, and ideally less than 5 percent. Lots of room for improvement here.

Adjusting to call volume per hour

The next great revelation is call volume by hour. There were nearly twice as many callers during the noon hour than at any other time in the day. But the staff routinely closed the office and shut down the phones at noon every day for lunch.

This explains the call-abandonment rate skyrocketing to 61.5 percent at midday. The staff also stopped answering the phones at 4:30 in the afternoon, which explains why the call-abandonment rate shot up again to nearly 60 percent then. All told, nearly one-third of telephone calls were coming in two 1-hour periods, during which someone was there to answer them for only a half-hour.

Folks, this is where bad online reviews come from, not so much from patients mad at their physicians for not giving them all the opiates they want. Happily, this practice quickly remedied the situation by making a few changes to the call center’s schedule.

The larger point here is that the patient experience doesn’t begin with the physician encounter. Rather, that part usually comes toward the end of the experience. It’s time to pay more attention to experiences surrounding the physician.

Everyone in the healing profession – not just doctors, nurses and mid-level providers, but also those in administrative roles – has an obligation to deliver not just good healthcare but also good customer care. Do just that, and I promise you, your patients will love you forever and tell others about their superior experience.

 

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