Envision this scenario for a moment. You are working at the front desk in your practice and the phone rings. You pick up the phone and it’s a patient calling to schedule an appointment. As you schedule the patient, another patient walks in through the front door and stands in front of you ready to be checked in. The proverbial finger goes up as you try to tell the patient in front of you to hold for one moment while you finish scheduling the patient on the call. This happens repeatedly throughout the day. If the phone isn’t ringing when you are checking patients in, it’s ringing when you are trying to obtain an insurance eligibility on a patient.
The stream of phone interruptions is endless throughout the day, and it’s actually causing you to make some mistakes. This is the rule rather than the exception in many of the practices we work with. Many practices live with this year after year, or try to implement technology that triages calls to the appropriate person in the office, you know, the dreaded 9 option phone tree.
Here are a few fundamental things that you can do to identify the issues and begin to reduce the volume of incoming calls to your practice.
Before you tackle the issue of incoming calls, it’s important to understand why patients are calling. There are a myriad of reasons why patients call your office but despite the reasons for calling, there are a few root causes that lead to incoming calls.
Let’s discuss the first root cause. Most often we see this in the form of questions like:
Believe it or not, most patients would rather not have to call you about questions like this. The only reason they are calling your office is because they couldn’t easily find what they needed as they searched around on your website or the internet for more information. If you are receiving incoming calls with questions like these frequently, you should look at how easy or difficult it is to find this type of information about your practice. Sometimes you, or someone in your practice may not be the best person to make this assessment because you are “too close” to the situation to be truly unbiased about how you assess the issue. It never hurts to ask a patient or family member to look over your website as you ask them to look for certain things for ease of use.
Look beyond your website as well. There is information about your practice strewn all over the internet. Review websites, mapping websites, sponsored ads, all of which have the potential of providing misinformation about your practice. In fact on more than one occasion, websites like google maps have sent people to the wrong practice down the road. Many of these websites also have places for office hours and days which could be providing incorrect information. Remember that it’s often easier for patients to “Google” your practice than it is for them to go directly to your website to look for the information they need. Google your practice every once in a while and check for accuracy.
Consider putting a frequently asked questions section on your website to cover some of the questions your practice receives most often. Anticipating the questions and answering them ahead of time can help reduce the number of incoming calls as well. Companies like Amazon which handle hundreds of thousands of customer interactions on a daily basis have mastered this in an attempt to make call volume manageable for their operations.
The second root cause is also prevalent in many practices that we work with. Outbound calls frequently become incoming calls if they result in the staff member leaving the patient a voicemail. This is like Newton’s third law of physics, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Reduce the number of outbound calls you are making and you will in turn reduce the number of incoming calls you receive. Commonly, up to 90% of appointment confirmation calls go to voice mail. Almost all of those voicemails will become incoming calls. What’s worse is that most people don’t even check their voicemail. What usually happens is the patient sees the number on their caller ID and ends up calling back saying “I just received a call from this number.” Then the staff member who picks up the call has to figure out why the practice would have called them. This usually results in a less than stellar patient experience because the patient just expects everyone in the office to know why someone called them.
Appointment confirmation calls are usually the biggest culprit here. You have to ask yourself two questions with confirmation calls.
Confirmation calls may not always be necessary. I recently worked in a practice that had as many non-confirmed patients show up for their appointments as confirmed patients. The non-confirmed patients believed that if they scheduled the appointment, they were going to show up for it. They didn’t need someone calling them to make sure they were going to show up at the office. It doesn’t hurt to look at your past appointments to determine who does and doesn’t show up. It may be time to consider eliminating the confirmation calls or being selective about who receives a reminder. I know this is difficult for most practices to believe; a simple benefit/effort analysis may prove that confirmation calls are a wasted effort.
If confirmation calls are absolutely necessary, is there another way to meet this need without a phone call? The answer is yes. There are many systems that can send automated confirmation messages and appointment reminders to patients either by email or text. Both of these means of communication are becoming increasingly more popular than the old land line. I was observing a patient yesterday that actually interrupted the doctor to pick up his cell phone. No, this patient wasn’t 21, he was 81. The moral here is don’t judge your patient’s use of cell phones and email based on their age.
The final root cause for incoming calls is a question of mismatched expectations. Patients usually expect proactive communication about the status of their lab results for example. If they don’t hear from you in a couple of days, they call to find out what’s going on. Sometimes this happens even if you told them that the lab results will not be ready for 10 days. This is human nature. Compare this to how companies like Amazon handle communications. Remember, Amazon doesn’t want incoming calls either.
This series of communications is designed to keep you off the phone. Many of the same systems that help with appointment confirmations also have the ability to provide outbound status updates on things like lab orders.
In closing, knowledge is power. You need to start off by understanding what types of incoming calls you are receiving and when you are receiving them. A simple tally sheet placed by each phone can help you collect helpful information. This information is a starting point in analyzing the reasons and frequency of calls. With this Information, you can start working on a plan to reduce the number of incoming phone calls you receive in your practice. Keep the improvements coming and good luck reducing those incoming phone calls.
Let’s be honest here — if incoming calls are a real problem for you, you are also going to be stretched to correct the issue on your own. My business partner and I have dedicated several years to uncovering these issues, developing diagnostics and correcting the underlying causes discussed here. Please reach out via phone or email if you would like to discuss how we may help. We can be reached at 904-701-3084 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.