Calming the Front-desk Fracas

October 30, 2007

I've been working with a medical practice that was trying to improve its patient access.

I've been working with a medical practice that was trying to improve its patient access. Patients were complaining that the office phone was either always busy or it sent calls directly into voice mail. After observing the front-end operations, here's what I found:

The front-desk staff member checked in patients, registered patients, answered all of the telephone lines, and scheduled appointments. As I tracked the volume of telephone calls and other daily demands, it was easy to see that the front-desk staffer was tasked with the impossible.

To solve this problem, we segregated tasks and automated many front-desk duties. For example, the front-desk staffer was routinely providing directions to the office, answering questions about hours of operation, and calling patients to remind them of upcoming appointments. These functions are both time-consuming and unnecessary given today's available technology. As such, I recommended that the practice:

  • List basic operational information on its Web site. Staffers should routinely encourage patients to seek such information there;

  • Provide automated options using its interactive phone system to handle routine requests, such as office location and operating hours; and

  • Upgrade to an appointment confirmation telephone system that automatically calls patients to remind them of upcoming office visits. This newer system can also be programmed to make several attempts to reach patients - an advantage over their current system.

Take time to analyze your staff's current task distribution, keeping automation in mind as your primary goal. Doing so will allow your staff to concentrate on the practice's

number one mission objective

- caring for your patients in a timely and efficient manner.

To properly assess your automation needs, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the correct number of staff to handle all necessary tasks?

  • Are specific tasks matched up with the most appropriate or capable staff member?

  • Is my staff performing the correct task at the correct time?

  • Which time-consuming tasks can I automate?

  • If I do determine a task can be automated, is doing so worth the time, effort, and cost?

Nick Fabrizio, PhD, FACHE, FACMPE, is a senior consultant with the Medical Group Management Association, specializing in operations, organization, strategic planning, governance, and customer service. Previously, he worked as a practice administrator for more than 10 years. He also worked with a community hospital, managing their ambulatory practices. He has worked for clients in primary and specialty care, hospital-managed physician practices and integrated delivery systems. He also serves on the faculty at Cornell University in the graduate program in Health Administration. Dr. Fabrizio can be reached at nfabrizio@mgma.com.