How voice recognition technology is improving the patient caller experience — 5 Qs with Parlance CEO Joseph Maxwell

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Efficiently handling incoming calls is a challenge for hospitals and health systems. Long hold times and multiple transfers create patient dissatisfaction, while high call volumes and outdated technology increase stress and frustration for operators and agents by making their tasks harder. 

Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with Joseph Maxwell, CEO of Parlance, about how voice recognition is improving the caller experience for leading health systems. He explained that technology-only solutions don't substantially improve patient experience or operator efficiency. Parlance differs from traditional interactive voice response systems by delivering voice recognition technology as a managed service. Leading healthcare organizations use Parlance to continuously optimize call routing, reduce operator workload, and improve the patient caller experience. 

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why do health systems turn to Parlance to assist with call volumes? 

Joseph Maxwell: The Covid -19 Pandemic is one example. This crisis has caused widespread disruption for hospital switchboards. Health systems report a variety of stressors that have impacted the ability of switchboard operations to answer the phone and serve the public: increased phone traffic from family members who couldn't visit patients, surges of COVID inquiries about vaccine appointments and general COVID questions, and operator absenteeism due to contagion and family needs (to name a few). Fluctuating call volumes is not a crisis-only problem though. Many factors contribute to stress on health system switchboards. One relevant example is the trend towards using vanity numbers in healthcare. Rising consumerism leads many health systems to use branding strategies to make patient access easier. As health systems expand, one way they try to improve patient access and experience is by creating an easy-to-remember phone number for scheduling appointments, like 989-DOCTORS. They publicize the phone number on websites, billboards and other places. The unintended consequence is that everyone calls that number, even if they aren't scheduling an appointment. As a result, over 25 percent of callers to central scheduling lines must often be routed elsewhere, such as the lab or a patient room. All these calls that "don't belong" overwhelm switchboards and contact center agents and make scheduling appointments harder, which hinders patient access. People who need support face longer hold times, and even callers with routine needs often wait to be transferred to the resource they need. 

This scenario is a good application for the Parlance speech recognition solution. When Parlance answers,  a natural voice asks callers where they are trying to go and then navigates them to the appropriate resource. Since callers can speak naturally and connect easily, it deflects calls from the switchboard and scheduling agents and improves the overall caller experience.

Q: Why do people think IVR is a dirty word? How is Parlance different from old-fashioned phone trees?

JM: Using an interactive voice response system can be frustrating for callers. Traditional phone trees often don't provide the options callers want. Also, it can take a lot of effort for callers to reach a live agent when the IVR isn't satisfying their needs. Pressing numbers on a phone or listening to multiple options creates friction.

Parlance is different because it enables voice-driven call routing. We've been using our voices since we were a few months old and it's the easiest way to communicate. With Parlance, callers simply say why they are calling and the system understands. Since Parlance isn't limited to the number of options that can be made available by using a telephone keypad, the solution can cover limitless destinations.  With more callers using self-service for routine requests, operators are more immediately available, for people who need live support.  

Q: What is the difference between Parlance and conversational bots and automated attendants?

JM: Conversational bots help users navigate an FAQ or complete a transaction. People in a healthcare context usually don't want to interact with a conversational bot. It's one thing if they are calling an airline to make a reservation, but patients don't want to talk to conversational bots about their medical concerns. Auto attendants are a more archaic solution based on phone menu trees. To get through them, callers must listen to a lot of instructions. Parlance deliver a much richer and more engaging, modern experience than automated attendants and conversational bots. 

Q: How large a role does up-to-date customer data play in the success of the Parlance solution?

JM: Up-to-date data plays a critical role. Our objective is to ensure that callers reach the right resource as quickly and as easily as possible. An accurate map of the resources within a health system is very important for achieving that goal. For example, if a family member is calling to speak to a recently admitted patient, it's really important that we have current information so we can correctly connect them. If a physician is in one clinic on Tuesday and Thursday, and another on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it's important that patient calls go to the correct destination based on that schedule. 

Q: Must Parlance customers agree to give Parlance access to health system data for the solution to be successful? How do you keep that data secure?

JM: We use a variety of data sources to map all the resources callers may need to connect with. HR data is one way we obtain staff and physician information and the best numbers to reach them at, but we use other data sources as well. For patient information we use a secure HL7 feed that refreshes every 15 minutes. As a general rule, we try to minimize the amount of data needed to accomplish our tasks. We don't use information like Social Security numbers. To keep data secure, we focus only on the data necessary to route calls to the right destination within the health system. We also partner with information security experts to stay abreast of best practices. 

Conclusion

Since 1996, organizations nationwide have depended on Parlance to deliver powerful voice-driven call routing solutions. As a managed service, Parlance partners with health systems to improve switchboard operator efficiency, call center agent productivity, and enhance patient satisfaction. "We're dedicated to helping our customers raise patient satisfaction and deliver the most caller-friendly experience possible," Mr. Maxwell said. "Many of our customers' patients comment on how easy it is to engage with the health system," "In addition, clients often report that Parlance has contributed to higher HCAHPS scores."

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