Creating a barrier to customer interaction is almost unheard of in most industries. In healthcare, providers seem to make it their business to prevent patients from accessing care. The ways that organizations hinder access are seemingly innocuous but nonetheless effective: telephone calls are answered only during limited, inconvenient hours; Web-based access points are emerging but not fully developed; physician schedules are restricted based on what works best for the organization (not their patients); multiple points of contact exist for seemingly basic tasks, like reaching a nurse; and the list goes on. Providing customer service via call centers is the standard for many industries but less common even among the largest healthcare providers. When designed and implemented correctly, these contact centers create significant efficiencies for healthcare organizations and contribute to substantial improvements in patient access.
More Than a Switchboard: Patient Contact Center Suite of Services
Patient contact centers have the ability to provide numerous services, surpassing what is traditionally recognized as a hospital switchboard or physician office telephone bank. These areas can encompass both clinical and nonclinical services, as well as processes to coordinate care across the system. Examples include referral management, 24‑hour nurse advice, e-visit capabilities, and post-hospital discharge outreach.
Patient Contact Center Benefits
When designed correctly, a patient contact center can reap significant rewards for patients as well as health systems, such as:
- Providing higher levels of service, in terms of speed to answer calls and lower call abandonment rate.
- Streamlining multiple-appointment booking across care sites or clinical services (e.g., oncology).
- Allowing practice sites to focus on the clinical provision of care rather than administrative processes.
- Facilitating the standardization of operational procedures that tend to be difficult to monitor/
change in the individual practice setting (e.g., provider scheduling rules, patient information verification processes).
- Leveraging economies of scale in staffing that cannot be realized at individual locations.
- Preventing referral leakage outside of the health system/network.
- Introducing new access points (e.g., 24-hour services).
Successful operations are as much about creating the right work flows for the contact center personnel as they are about educating the practices on their role in the contact center environment. Defined accountabilities and communication channels, among other key requirements, are critical in achieving a best practice contact center. Key success factors are summarized below.
Build or Buy?
There are a variety of services that may be appropriate candidates for outsourcing. Other services are essential to day-to-day operations and have historically functioned less optimally in an outsourced arrangement. Outsourced vendors will need to display increasing capabilities to understand the localized healthcare environment in order to successfully provide services that are core to patient care operations.
When considering a contact center solution, an organization needs to ask the following questions:
- How complex and variable are current patient scheduling practices?
- To what extent is the organization willing to embrace standardization/centralization, given that the change to a patient contact center may require the efforts below?
- Staff relocation or displacement.
- Limitations on physician and practice scheduling preferences.
- Significant change management efforts.
- Do current service levels suggest a need to centralize contact center services to enhance the patient experience? What areas (e.g., scheduling, referrals, nursing) are most critical to address?
- To what degree is the organization’s payer strategy aligned with making additional investments in outreach and population health management activities that may not be in place today?
- Is insourcing contact center services strategically and financially feasible, or can the desired results be achieved through outsourcing to an external partner?
Contact centers are not the right solution for every organization but should be considered within an organization’s overall patient access strategy to move from provider-focused to patient-centric care delivery.
Several vendors are experimenting with outsourced arrangements that provide direct access to EHR and PM systems.