One call away: The all-too common mistake hospitals make with customer relationships

As patients take a more active role in their own care, they are increasingly expecting healthcare to more closely resemble the customer experience they enjoy at other businesses.

Most health systems put a majority of their focus on patients' site visits, but hospitals are interacting with patients at a higher frequency through the phone. The average health system can encounter millions of inbound calls a year. These conversations can set the tone for the rest of the patient's interaction with a hospital or health system.

A patient may be more apt to schedule an appointment if they have a good experience. However, calls can easily feel impersonal, complicated and leave the caller with trouble contacting the appropriate person. That negative experience is directly related to the health system brand, which can ultimately influence patients' choice in care.

Some call centers do a great job of leaving patients informed, calm and accommodated, while others have much room for improvement.

Bill Moschella, co-founder and CEO of healthcare customer relationship management software company Evariant, recently spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about the most common ways hospitals and health systems mishandle customer relationships.

Note: Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why is the call center important as far as the patient experience?

BM: It's really the front lines of the health system. It's an area in which the patient is going to interface with the healthcare provider when the patient is not at the organization. When you're home and you're sick or you're not feeling well, you're picking up the phone and you're dialing in, and someone else on the other end of the line is answering your questions.

Think about what it's like when you're talking about your own health or your child or loved one. It's so important that the experience is a very personal experience and that the person on the other end of the line is not treating the patient like a case number.

Q: What is the impact if the caller has a positive experience versus a negative experience?

BM: The experience is representative of the brand. The brand is representative of the care. And if you have a poor experience that relates to the brand experience, a patient will relate it to the quality of care that they might receive. A lot of healthcare organizations have been put into the idea that the patient should be treated like they're at the Ritz-Carlton. You walk into some of these new hospitals and — it's amazing — it's like walking into a hotel. You're greeted by somebody at the door and there's a beautiful lobby. Why can't health organizations put the same level of effort into their call center? Why can't the same experience be integrated and connected? Not many people are focused on that question.

Q: What are some common ways hospitals mishandle customer relationships?

BM: Let's just take a patient scheduling situation. The chances of the individual having direct access to scheduling at the actual location, along with knowledge of the doctors and their schedules, is questionable. In many cases, there is a call and then a transfer of the call. There's a centralized call center that takes the call and then transfers the call based on the patient's need. That's pretty inefficient. The patient is calling in to get scheduling information. The call center gets all of the patient's information, asks what the patient is looking for and then passes the patient on to somebody else who asks the patient the same questions. So that's repetitive input of information and repetitive asking of demographic information to get someone to an end goal.

Also, one of the common themes you'll hear among call centers in healthcare is this concept of "one-call resolution." If a patient calls for scheduling, and does so directly and without any transfers, the call center sees this as successfully achieving the “one-call resolution.” The healthcare organization thinks by checking off single individual problems that the bigger problem is solved, but it's not.

This concept of one-call resolution has created more siloes within healthcare organizations. It's this concept of, "I don't want to waste anybody's time." Hospitals and health systems pay their contact center agents on the total number of calls, managing and closing them in the shortest amount of time possible. Who out there said that's the right thing to do? Where's the value? Why not have a centralized system that has access to as much information as possible, where hospitals and health systems say to the patient, "I know not only about you but also people in your household, and I can service and access as many aspects of you as possible in your household with you directly with a number of different things."

Q: What are the most common mistakes hospitals and health systems make with call centers?

BM: I think it's less of a mistake and more of a lack of action where they think, "Why should I fix something that's not broken? Isn't a one-call resolution great? Aren't you happy I have a centralized system?" There's not enough pressure yet from a regulatory perspective on this, but as hospitals and health systems move more toward accountable care, or healthcare organizations are influenced by the business model and what you're attempting to achieve through value-based care, patient engagement is the most important thing.

Q: What about hospitals that choose to outsource their call center needs? What are the respective benefits versus risks of choosing to outsource your call center to a third party?

BM: The provider market loves managed services because they typically don't have in-house infrastructure to manage it. They can rely on somebody else to tell them, "This is the right way to do things." There's a need for that. There's a benefit to going with an organization that services multiple organizations and has a lot of expertise. They run call centers for a business. It's about putting the focus on what hospitals and health systems do best, which is care, and letting a third-party run managed IT services.

In contrast, when hospitals and health systems take call centers in-house and set up the operations appropriately, their opportunity for a better customer experience is closely related to the fact they have regional service centers and maybe nurses on the phone who are familiar with the physicians they're servicing, so maybe there's more of a personal touch. As hospitals and health systems evolve to the needs of the patient and patients in their market and adopt those clinical systems and manage clinical flow, they're dealing with data and systems and processes they have direct influence over. So if they decide they're going to change something, they don't have to pay consulting dollars and then go bring people in to run new protocol and processes.

There are overall a lot of different anomalies over being in control of the call center versus not being in control. All hospitals and health systems operate in a different way. They have different markets, different service lines. They have different philosophies and operating models, and they're going to have different requirements and needs in a call center. Whether they insource or outsource depends on where they might put their efforts.


More articles on finance and revenue cycle management:

30 things to know about balance billing
Uncovering revenue sources through transformation of the hospital lab
Mississippi to close more than 30 psychiatric beds amid state budget cuts: 5 things to know

Copyright © 2024 Becker's Healthcare. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy. Cookie Policy. Linking and Reprinting Policy.


Featured Whitepapers

Featured Webinars