Taming the Telephone Tiger

September 22, 2010

The phones never seem to stop ringing in a medical practice. How does your practice manage incoming calls?

The phones never seem to stop ringing in a medical practice. How does your practice manage incoming calls? Do you have a dedicated staff for answering phone calls? Do you attempt to minimize the number of incoming calls? However you manage this important function, it takes forethought and careful planning. Here are some tips to help you tame your telephone tiger.

Managing incoming calls. Typically - other than an appointment request - a patient call requires writing a message. That message might go right to nursing, or it might get routed to the medical records room so that the patient’s chart can be pulled and delivered to nursing with the message. But then what happens?

In some practices, the nurses must manage patient phone calls in between rooming and discharging patients. That can be close to impossible on a busy Monday with lots of patients scheduled and lots of incoming patient phone calls. In other practices, a dedicated phone staff handles all incoming and outgoing calls, for all providers.

However you manage your incoming calls, is there a mechanism to ensure that a call-back to the patient is completed in a timely manner? Can you be sure that your messages aren’t lost or misfiled with the wrong chart? And, are calls distributed equally among your staff, or are some overwhelmed with the volume of calls for their providers? Remember, about 25 percent of all calls that come into a medical practice are repeat calls: generally because the practice hasn’t responded to the patient in a timely manner, and the patient or family member gets anxious and calls a second time.

Technology for tracking phone calls. Software programs such as Phonepad and NotifyMD provide phone documentation and tracking capabilities. These tools can be used for simple documentation and distribution of messages, and they can also allow your practice to manage the distribution volume and to track call-management efficiency. For example, the software can be used to identify when a physician/nurse team has too many calls to respond in a timely manner so it can shift calls to other supplemental teams and help your practice maintain a high level of patient satisfaction.

Minimizing call volume. A patient portal can allow your patients to self-serve and accomplish tasks via the Internet instead of phoning your practice. Portal tools like Medfusion, EMedSafe, RelayHealth, Kryptiq, and others allow patients to register, request appointments, ask for prescription refills, complete their medical history, and access test results all online.

A portal can be set up as a component of your practice management system and/or EHR or it can be a completely independent application interfaced to your core systems. The portal is really a secure way for your patients to access services that previously could only be reached via the phone.

Resistance to change. At first, your staff might be apprehensive about using a patient portal because they think it will add to their workload. But in many instances, the transactions accomplished via a patient portal take the place of answering the telephone - so it represents a shift of work, not additional work.

When a phone rings, it represents an interruption to your practice work flow. Somebody has to stop what they are doing to answer it. However, the patient portal can be managed proactively throughout the day, becoming a regular task rather than being an unwelcome addition to an already full day. Employees are pleasantly surprised to find that managing a patient portal is far less chaotic than managing the telephone. Employees are happier and patient satisfaction increases: a win-win for your practice.

Rosemarie Nelson is a principal with the MGMA healthcare consulting group. She conducts educational seminars and provides keynote speeches on a variety of healthcare-technology and operational topics. Drawing upon her diverse experience, Nelson provides practical solutions to help medical groups succeed in their practices. She may be reached at www.mgma.com/consulting/nelson.