Transforming access + engagement: How Essentia Health is leveraging its contact center for better patient experiences

Contact centers house insights that are integral to patient access and engagement strategies. The interactions and data captured here can guide hospitals and health systems in strengthening patient relationships, evaluating services more effectively and better understanding patients' concerns.

To learn how contact center technology can support streamlined processes that improve clinical outcomes, Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with Art Guerrero, contact center and referrals director at Duluth, Minn.-based Essentia Health, an integrated health system serving patients in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

New approaches to patient outreach improve access and engagement

Essentia Health's patient communication model is comprehensive, breaking down traditional patient communication silos to address the whole patient experience. The organization leverages its contact center to handle phone calls — a preferred modality for its population. To extend reach, however, the organization is using proactive SMS text messages and automated outbound communications. This optimizes staff time and ensures that patients get the care they need promptly. As a result, Essentia Health's contact center is now a hub of data for multiple types of patient interactions and a valuable resource for improving overall patient experience.

Historically, Essentia Health has used outbound phone calls to contact patients for appointment reminders or referrals. This strategy has downsides, though: It is labor intensive and patient engagement tends to be low. "Patients' proclivity for answering unsolicited phone calls is very low," Mr. Guerrero said. "We've found it to be around 30 percent."

To address these challenges, Essentia Health is turning to SMS text messages for patient outreach.

"We expect to have a much higher conversion and reach rate by using SMS, where we already have patients' permission to do so," Mr. Guerrero said. "We can let patients know about follow-ups from clinicians, then they can respond and make an appointment. For those who prefer voicemail, we will offer that option as well."

Mr. Guerrero expects this approach will reduce the amount of contact center resources dedicated to outreach and will improve the patient experience.

"The faster we can convert patient contacts into appointments, the faster patients can see specialists and other healthcare providers," he said. "By adding another communication channel with SMS, we will be able to route calls to the right resources and reduce the number of transfers for patients." 

Patient insights are more accessible via contact center technology

Essentia Health recently deployed a cloud-based customer experience platform within their contact center. This provides the contact center team with interactive and actionable analytics. The solution makes it easy to scan both voice- and text-based patient interactions to understand sentiment and the reasons patients are calling.

"When health events arise, such as Ebola or COVID-19, the chief medical officer often reaches out to me and asks what patients are calling about," Mr. Guerrero said. "In the past, we had to run campaigns to figure that out. Today, we can type a keyword into the search field and easily discover whether people are calling about a certain concern, like the pandemic or a particular type of medication. The information is much more accessible than before."

Realizing maximum value from contact center technology requires a holistic strategy

Based on his experience deploying contact center technology, Mr. Guerrero offered several recommendations to peers at other hospitals and health systems. "For any organization bringing on new technologies, you can't simply turn on a button," he said. "You must think about how to support the application and get the most value from it."

For example, contact center leaders may need to identify new resources to extract insights from the data generated by such tools. "We created a new job description for a system analyst who can look at the information and translate it into a course of action for making improvements, streamlining processes and identifying why patients are contacting us," Mr. Guerrero said.

From an operations perspective, the contact center must partner closely with the internal IT team. It may be necessary to redefine requirements and rethink how to incorporate new capabilities. In some cases, these conversations will focus on issues like integrating technology solutions and data with existing systems, such as the EHR. In other instances, the dialogue may revolve around creating a broader technology ecosystem.

"Our organization has a department that patients contact for billing issues," Mr. Guerrero said. "If that department uses the same technology platform as the contact center, we can get full transparency and a 360-degree view of the patient. The same could apply to nurse triage. If they used the same ecosystem, we could see data and analytics more holistically."

The benefits of a technology ecosystem may be attractive to leaders throughout the organization, which can be helpful in generating a case for implementing new tools.

"Be prepared for other departments to get on the wagon and ask to use a solution like this one," Mr. Guerrero said. "As you roll out new technologies, think about system capacity. The faster you can grow usage, the faster you will be able to make a positive difference for patients."

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