Telephone management: Getting a grip on frustrating, annoying ringing

December 1, 2008

Is the constant din of ringing telephones frustrating and annoying everyone in your practice? Maybe it's time to turn your telephones into tools that work for your dermatology practice instead of against it.

Key Points

Poorly managed telephones are more than an annoyance - they can be a costly drain of valuable staff and provider time. They can even disrupt patient flow. Try these tips to get a grip on telephone management.

Gather data

There are limited industry benchmarks regarding telephone calls. In my experience, abandonment rates for the medical practice industry are 5 percent to 10 percent. As you make improvements, monitor your progress by measuring data.

'Mystery patient' survey

Similar to "secret shoppers" at hotels and restaurants, an anonymous caller should contact your practice 10 times at different times of day for a series of at least five days. The caller notes how many rings before the operator picks up, how staff greet callers, how much time is spent on hold and so on.

Summarize your findings and present the data from your telephone system and the mystery patient survey to your practice to generate a call to action.

Tackle response time

This is a major frustration for patients; they never know when or if someone will return their calls.

Try setting a goal of a maximum of three hours for response time. Don't fret if the answer isn't back within three hours. The time frame is to respond to the call, not necessarily to conclude it. Call the patient back to tell him or her that you are still working on the response.

Set expectations

Tell patients who call in with questions when they will receive an answer or call back.

Set the goal a little beyond what you know you can do consistently (for example, if your internal commitment is three hours, tell the patient four).

Reduce incoming calls

This doesn't mean telling patients not to call. It means anticipating their needs before they feel forced to call. Head off calls by empowering patients with after- visit summaries.

Most electronic health record systems also can print post-visit summaries of your assessment and treatment plan.

High-performing dermatology practices realize that proactive communication with patients is critical to an efficient operation - and high-quality care.

Use the Web wisely

Many practices are gearing up their Web sites to offer patients secure, password-protected portals to personalized health records, appointment scheduling, test results retrieval, medication renewals and more. Patient portals make it easy for patients to "self-serve" - not only are they happier to have easy access to the information, but it also means fewer phone calls for your practice to handle.

Medication renewals

How many times a day does your staff have to take a message and track you or a nurse down to renew a medication for a patient who was just seen a few days earlier? Require your nurse or medical assistant to review patients' medications as part of the intake process.

Another common mistake is to give a patient a medication for 30 days and then schedule an appointment one month later. If the "one month" turns into 32 days because of a weekend, a physician is unavailable, or some other reason, the patient is forced to call in for the renewal.

Billing statements

Statements should list a direct phone number to the business office so receptionists don't have to spend time transferring these inquiries.

More importantly, remove jargon like "insurance pending" - which, from the patients' perspective, might mean that something is awry with their insurance coverage, when really you're just trying to communicate that a claim has been submitted but hasn't yet paid.

No one has a problem figuring out how much they owe the electric company each month, so why not aim for that level of clarity in your billing statements?

Voice mail

Voice mail merely shifts call volume; it doesn't reduce it. As a result of the time spent wading through the prompts, passwords and messages, voice mail actually consumes twice as much time as answer- ing the call in the first place.

Reserve voice mail for nonclinical, non-emergency matters, such as billing, prescription renewals, referrals or office management. Make sure a live operator can always be reached during business hours.

Schedule callbacks

When patients really do need to speak to a physician or nurse, consider scheduling their callbacks. Designate a time of day to make those return calls. It will maximize effective use of the provider's time and reduce the annoying game of phone tag.

The telephone is your practice's electronic front door. Ignore it at your own risk.

Ms. Woodcock is a professional speaker, trainer and author specializing in medical practice management. She has focused on medical practice operations and revenue cycle management for 15 years. She has authored seven practice management books, including the top-selling Mastering Patient Flow. Ms. Woodcock is a fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives and a certified professional coder. She holds a B.A. from Duke University and completed her M.B.A. in healthcare management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

For more information, visit http://www.elizabethwoodcock.com/