With more patients requiring healthcare information and services due to COVID-19, it is imperative for leaders to bolster the entry points into their organizations. Whether telephonic or digital, these access points represent a health system’s virtual front door—the first place most patients will turn, and the first to field inquiries and facilitate patient navigation across the system.
Regardless of the contact center infrastructure, or lack thereof, organizations can deploy tactical strategies to better manage this volume across three primary domains: proactive communication, telephony enhancement, and staffing management. The optimal response is at the intersection of these three areas, where up-front communications to patients and technology usage may alleviate downstream resource needs.
Up-front and automated communications via telephone, patient portal, and/or automated appointment reminder solutions can proactively push information to patients without tying up resources.
- Appointment Reminders: Review the process and settings for canceling routine appointments that can be postponed until after the COVID-19 crisis subsides. Launch these communications earlier and more frequently than usual to prevent inbound queries about existing appointments or to direct patients to the online patient portal should questions remain.
- General Communications: Record information for callers using an interactive voice response option. This may include messages about access to virtual visits for patients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, reminders about self-service options via the patient portal, updated hours of operation, or procedures for non-COVID-19–related appointments. This automated message will reduce the number of patients who need to speak to an employee.
While these strategies will help reduce inbound inquiries, it is also important that there be heightened internal communications within the teams handling them. Establishing daily team huddles can help ensure employees are armed with up-to-date information while also fostering connectedness during this demanding time.
Organizations with a telephony solution in place may have additional features at their disposal. Organizations should work with their telephony vendor and IT teams to identify features and functionality that can be easily enabled or temporarily reconfigured.
- Phone Menu: Review what information can be relayed by nonclinical staff and use the phone menu to route the maximum number of calls to nonclinical resources. For example, organizations with an existing or recently established nurse line can use menu options to route calls related to upcoming appointments or hours of operation to nonclinical resources to avoid tying up valuable nurse time.
- Queue Callback: Faced with resource constraints, patients are likely experiencing longer hold times. Consider enabling an in-queue callback option so that patients can avoid waiting on hold but keep their place in the queue and be contacted when it is their turn. This can be particularly impactful for nurse lines, where handle times tend to be longer and resources more limited.
Using these features in existing telephony solutions will allow organizations to respond quickly to the growing call demand. For omnichannel contact centers, consider deploying other solutions, such as chat bots, to manage additional non-call volume and direct patients to digital health solutions.
Once call routing has been reconfigured, organizations can run staffing calculations to identify temporary contact center staffing needs based on the heightened call volume and handle times. Similarly, organizations can conduct simple sensitivity analyses to estimate anticipated service levels based on available staffing. This information should then be reviewed with operational leadership to reestablish temporary service-level expectations. Traditionally, organizations strive for 80% to 85% of calls answered within 30 seconds, but they may choose to temporarily ease those targets due to increased volume coupled with resource constraints.
That said, organizations must simultaneously take action to combat resource constraints, including consideration of the following strategies:
- Deploy flexible working arrangements (e.g., working from home), if not done so already.
- Recruit clinical and/or nonclinical resources from other parts of the organization to assist with call handling and triage. This could include employees with reduced hours due to slowdowns in nonemergent areas such as surgery, outpatient imaging, and physician practices.
- Create clinical and nonclinical protocols for rapid telephonic triage. Check your state’s department of health website to see if there are any protocols readily available.
During a time of grave healthcare concern and needs, the front doors into the organization are experiencing significantly more inbound communication traffic. Regardless of an organization’s call-handling sophistication, strategies can be deployed to prevent unnecessary communications, better manage the increased volume, and ultimately help direct patients to the right place of care, such as digital health options.