Changing How Providers Handle Voice Calls is Key to Better Patient Experiences

Updated on November 17, 2022
smart phone or computer

There’s a good reason why many patients are choosing alternative, direct-to-consumer healthcare options over their local hospital or health system. They want more convenient and frictionless interactions with their healthcare provider, and that includes voice conversations with a person that resolves their question.

While hospitals and health systems are implementing digital, omnichannel tools to give patients more convenience and to better compete with Hims and Hers, ZocDoc, Ro and other direct-to-consumer companies, voice calls remain the channel that providers need to fix most urgently. Voice remains the only channel where patients can get answers to more complex questions that can’t be handled by increasingly capable chatbots or an FAQ. 

Hospitals and health systems, struggling with staff turnover and burnout, inflation and the transition toward virtual, technology-enabled care, are still hard to navigate for many patients. Most providers still struggle to route patients to the most appropriate care modality based on their health issue.

The vision for omnichannel healthcare is a patient interacting seamlessly with their provider no matter the channel – whether it be a voice call, an in-person clinician visit, telehealth appointment, online, mobile, or chat. Digital tools like chatbots and voice-recognition phone response systems offer patients the opportunity to track their emotional health, check symptoms, or receive a reminder to take a medication. They also promise to ease the burden on clinicians, nurses, and office staff. 

But implementing easy to use digital and online tools, while a good start, only solves part of the problem. Healthcare providers will never achieve their omnichannel care delivery vision until they solve what’s arguably their most important channel: phone-based interactions with a human. Maybe more than any other industry, healthcare relies on people solving problems in a way that’s empathetic toward a patient’s challenges. That’s where voice calls can make or break a patient’s experience.

In many provider organizations, nurses and other staff still handle a significant number of phone calls, no matter how prosaic or routine. It’s especially true for nurses. These may include a call to remind patients of an upcoming appointment, schedule a follow-up, or provide basic care instructions — or even a call to an insurance company to resolve a billing question.  

This is less than ideal for two reasons:

  • It takes away from nurses providing care to patients. Most nurses aspire to practice at the top of their license. This means they’re providing care that utilizes the full capacity of their skills, training and education. While many nurses are willing to pitch in and restock a supply cabinet or change a bedpan, most nurses want to minimize the number of routine duties that take time away from providing direct care to patients. Having to make phone calls that could easily be handled by others not only consumes their valuable time, but it also may distract nurses to the point of reducing patient care quality. One study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that there was an association between nurses in the pediatric intensive care unit answering incoming phone calls and making medication administration errors.
  • Patient queries are handled inefficiently. Patients, even those with a routine question, want to feel reassured that their hospital or health system cares about their problems. The majority of the time, when a patient is calling their healthcare provider with a non-clinical problem, they would be satisfied having their issue resolved by a caring, reassuring professional equipped with the most up-to-date information about their case. It doesn’t need to be a doctor or nurse.

Considering the extreme level of burnout and turnover that has impacted the nursing workforce over the past two-plus years, reducing their non-clinical workloads must be a priority.

Here is how to develop an omnichannel patient experience that provides the right level of response to meet patients’ needs and provide relief to your workforce.

  • Develop a strategy to handle queries digitally. This strategy should include a mix of chatbots, FAQs, emails, SMS messages and other tools that sift out most or all of the non-clinical, non-emergency patient interactions. Some patients will prefer to speak to a person no matter what. In some areas where Internet access is limited or among economically disadvantaged communities, digital tools aren’t an option, and the phone will be their only means of resolving a question. But resolving simple, routine questions digitally for those patients who can access those tools allows organizations to reserve phone interactions for more complex problems requiring human reasoning.
  • Equip call centers with the right knowledge and abilities. This is vitally important whether a hospital or health system is staffing a call center in-house with clinical staff or outsourcing to a third-party services provider. Patients who can’t resolve their questions through a chatbot or website FAQ need to speak with a person. Even if that person isn’t a clinician or nurse, they should be trained with the right level of knowledge to recognize how to best resolve a patient’s concerns. If a patient missed a medication dose and is experiencing a medical issue, a call center agent should be trained to refer that patient to the appropriate level of care.
  • Provide multilingual support. Language barriers lead to reduced quality of care and health disparities among people with limited English proficiency. One 2021 study found that hospitals struggle with appropriate interpreter staffing for LEP patients and family members. Whether handled in-house or outsourced, a call center should be staffed with multilingual and bilingual agents to reduce errors and cut down on the amount of time needed to resolve a patient’s concern. Even if a patient is bilingual, many still prefer to speak in their native language and will be more likely to be satisfied if they can do so.

If patients feel as though their interactions with their hospital or health system are handled in an expeditious, convenient and empathetic manner, they will be more likely to continue receiving care with that hospital or health system, rather than seeking out direct-to-consumer care options. Handling voice calls more efficiently is better for the patient and gets clinicians and nurses off the phone and back to doing what they do best: providing great care.

Dave Palmer is president of Everise, one of the fastest growing outsourced customer experience companies in the world.