Telephone Etiquette Tips for Medical Practice Staff

March 25, 2015

Meeting patient expectations is the surest way to increase their satisfaction with your practice. Telephone management is a good place to start.

Patient frustration and anger are generally the result of unmet expectations. It follows, therefore, that the fundamental task in improving patients' satisfaction is to manage and then meet their expectations. How your practice handles telephonic communication with patients provides four excellent examples.

Please note that none of the suggested strategies add any cost; most increase staff productivity, and some mitigate risk.

1. Offer to take a message if you are not prepared to deal immediately with the caller.

The receptionist at a practice I know does not take messages. She answers each call on the first or second ring and immediately puts the caller on hold to await attention from another staff member. According to her, these holds typically last five to 10 minutes. My best guess is that the patients are initially surprised and perpetually frustrated by this practice, especially when they only need to leave a message or ask a question that a staff person cannot answer.

How much better would it be for the person answering the phone to give the caller an opportunity to leave a message, go about her business, and have the request resolved in a callback? This change would also benefit staff and physicians: the calls could be addressed in batches, on a schedule. Work flows would not be interrupted - which hammers productivity and is a leading cause of mistakes.

2. Ask if the patient can hold and wait for his answer, before putting him on hold.

When a receptionist answers a ringing phone with "Doctor's office, please hold," she only thinks she has answered the call. From the patient's point of view, it's worse than hearing the phone continue to ring. No matter how often your hold message tells the caller how important he is, he knows he is being ignored.

The caller has no way to guess the length of the hold. No one likes uncertainty, and this is a guaranteed way to irritate a patient. One downside for the staff is that they must then deal with a grumpy patient. Another is that the patient is very likely to hang up. That means another call for the receptionist to handle later, as well as a patient who is expecting to be irritated. The worst case is that the patient won't call back which means non-compliance or a loss of business.

Before voicemail, my children's pediatrician's office endeared itself to me forever. They always asked "Can you hold?" and they never failed to wait for my answer. It only took a couple of seconds but made an enormous deposit in the bank of good will.

3. Don't let the phone ring half a dozen times.

A prompt rollover to voicemail also reduces the caller's frustration. Each ring is a promise that someone will answer the call, raising expectations that are not going to be met. If no one can get to the phone within two or at most three rings, staff is obviously otherwise occupied. All the extra rings do is add to the noise and sense of stress in the office, which is not good for the patients onsite or the staff.

4. When taking a message, tell the caller when there will be a response.

The objective here is to minimize uncertainty and manage expectations. If the caller knows that there will not be a callback until the clinic session is over, she won't expect one sooner. That makes it less likely she will call back three more times before noon - an obvious boon for staff productivity. Of course she also needs to know that she can expect a call no later than the start of the afternoon clinic at 1 p.m.

This only works when physicians and staff members keep the practice's promises to patients. Some will object to this practice because there may not be an answer available by the promised time. That's OK. Call the patient back within the promised window, explain the delay, and tell him that you will call again when you have an answer to his question.

The principles presented apply to every interaction between human beings. Being aware of your patients' expectations, explicitly moderating them as necessary, and keeping your service promises is the key to increased and sustained patient satisfaction.