The impact of COVID-19 on patient contact centers: how the pandemic accelerated use of outsourcing

Although most health systems have centralized call center operations, the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to implement alternative solutions, including outsourcing.

During a featured session sponsored by Change Healthcare as part of Becker's Health IT + RCM virtual event, Jason Lee, vice president of product management at Change Healthcare, shared results of a study that examined current trends and pain points related to patient access contact centers.

Five key takeaways were:

  • Most health systems have centralized call center operations. Research found that 80 percent of health systems have centralized call center operations for at least some departments; 96 percent of large health systems have centralized or hybrid call centers. Reasons for centralization include maintaining control and having a desire to keep jobs in the community. About one third of health systems outsource overflow support.

  • In managing contact centers, health systems experience several common pain points. Operational challenges are a major pain point, due to lack of standardized workflows. Many organizations have more than 100 scheduling workflows. "That not only presents challenges for the current contact centers, but also affects their shift to digital," Mr. Lee said. "The facilities need to ensure that the right patient is getting the right workflow at the right time."

    An additional pain point is inadequate follow-up and follow-through with patients. Lack of follow-up translates into patient no-shows for appointments as well as patient leakage. The problem is not addressed if health systems lack outbound messaging capabilities to engage patients.

  • Health systems have limited adoption of call center technology. Many survey respondents were focused on merely getting table-stakes technology implemented. Issues include limited health system investment and slow adoption of call center technology. Challenges include limited availability of solutions, suboptimal user experiences, complexity, and difficulty integrating across platforms.

  • Digital self-scheduling will be part of the future, but adoption has been slow. Health systems aspire to grow their self-scheduling volume. Currently, about 26 percent of appointments are self-scheduled. The goal for health systems is that 50 percent of appointments will be self-scheduled in two years. Functions such as primary care and pediatrics are most likely to use self-scheduling. "We expect a continued movement, especially those high-volume, low-complexity appointments," Mr. Lee said. "Some low-volume, high-complexity appointments are least likely to ever be digitized."

  • Labor issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, have fueled interest in outsourcing and alternative staffing solutions. Although finding and retaining labor has been a challenge for years, COVID-19 made the problem worse. One executive reported to Mr. Lee that half of their call center agents quit during the pandemic. Organizations also found it difficult to maintain productivity in work-from-home environments.

    "The pandemic forced many health systems to start trying new things," Mr. Lee said. "They started to look at hiring temporary employees or outsourcing as an alternative means of managing patient access functions." Nearly half of health systems increased reliance on outsourcing partners during the pandemic. "Many health system executives see outsourcing the contract center as a means to address key pain points," Mr. Lee noted. Among health systems that have begun outsourcing, 73 percent are likely to continue doing so post-COVID.

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