The Intersection of Contact Centers and Patient Experience


By Katie Owens, MHA, and Richard D. Stier MBA

A large, backlight sign at the entrance to a leading healthcare contact center boldly proclaims: “We own the patient experience.” At another, a team member wears a purple t-shirt that announces in large white letters: “I give phone hugs!”

What’s Going On? Exit the call center. Enter the patient experience (PX) hub. Currently, healthcare has a 29 percent patient experience failure rate, according to research by Hospital Compare. Only 71 percent of inpatient patients receiving care report they received the “best possible care.” In order to positively impact outcomes, it is imperative for healthcare leaders to recognize that an “always” experience begins before a patient receives care and continues after the patient returns home.

Healthcare contact centers are uniquely positioned as the virtual front door for personalized support and referrals before using a clinical service and for individualized follow-up and coaching after discharge. In contrast to legacy call centers that process transactions, today’s patient experience hub is the new nerve center of the organization. It delivers intentionally memorable experiences that mitigate risk, reduce unnecessary readmissions, and solidify loyalty.

With the launch of the Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) program by CMS in 2006, hospitals have dedicated significant time and resources to improving the results of CAHPS surveys. Increasingly, improving the effectiveness of a health network’s contact center is viewed as an investment to improve the experience of care. This begins at the first touchpoint where someone new to the community calls for a referral to a primary care physician (PCP). It extends to after discharge when a contact center navigator calls to confirm a follow-up visit with that PCP.

This first touchpoint is critical. According to SHSMD (2012), the first three seconds of that initial interaction influences hospital selection and preference.

What Do Patients Want? CAHPS surveys reveal that effective, two-way patient-centered communication is the key differentiator. Here’s the summary.

  • Patients want to be heard.
  • Patients want their concerns validated and responded to with respect.
  • Patients want to be able to trust those who care for their health.
  • Patients need to understand their treatments and be confident that their care is coordinated.
  • Patients want to be cared for by engaged employees who make them feel like a top priority. They desire candor and straight talk about what’s going on with them. They want to be assured of responsiveness to ongoing needs.

“Voice of the patient” audio files, recorded with patient permission, provide revealing snapshots of patient perceptions. Here are examples of verbatim patient comments.

Audio transcription #1: “The doctor who did the surgery, his assistant (I guess the nurse), all the nurses that came and worked with me during the night, during my stay, was absolutely fantastic. Each one of them was always smiling and each one of them was always helpful.

“The PT staff that walked with me around the hospital, the staff, the nurse’s staff that I met in the hallway that was always polite and courteous and encouraging. I have never been treated better, and I’ve been in and out of hospitals a lot.

“(This hospital) was absolutely the best place that I have ever received treatment. That’s because of all of the doctors and the nurses and all those that contributed to my care. I just thank you, and God bless you.”

Audio transcription #2: “From beginning to end, it was a totally dissatisfactory performance. They did not register me properly; they did not mail the application information in advance. When I got there, they blamed me that they had mailed it to me. I had to fill out the information while I was there. Even when I gave it to them, the information in the computer was actually information relevant to my father, who had been a patient twenty-six years previously.

“So they had my address listed as his address, which was twenty-six years out of date.

“The actual care that I received was absolutely worthless. The person with whom I spoke had no idea how to respond to any of my questions, and quite frankly, I feel like I know more about sleep apnea than the person to whom I spoke. It was a complete waste of time; I wish I had not gone; and then, finally, I got billed 370 something dollars for the visit. I spoke to somebody for maybe fifteen minutes, and because of insurance, the bill to me ended up being adjusted to $132, which was a total waste of money.”

Delivering What Patients Want: More than eighty-five percent – 85.7 percent of senior healthcare executives surveyed during the first quarter of 2016 – indicate that, “Our organization will be focused on improving patient experience during 2016.” In a separate study, the Deloitte Contact Center Survey found that 62 percent of organizations view customer experience provided through contact centers as a competitive differentiator.

Significant financial consequence secures the priority of improving patient experiences. Based on reports from CMS regarding national healthcare expenditures per capita, the cost of the loss of loyalty – of just one patient deciding not to come back to a specific healthcare organization for the rest of his or her life – could account for $400,000.

By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, according to Customer’s 2020 Report. Additional research by The Executive Report on customer experience indicates that 79.7 percent of respondents believe the contact center is involved in defining the customer experience.

FUEL Patient Experiences: The acronym FUEL provides an easy-to-remember guide to enable transformative patient experiences:

Focus Through the Patients’ Eyes: Patient experience (PX) mapping creates a flow chart of every single touchpoint from the patient’s perspective. It identifies all the people, processes, environments, and technologies the patient encounters including call transfers, paperwork, and wait times. PX maps identify how contact centers can strengthen trust and improve handoffs of care.

One leading healthcare contact center conducts their own ongoing patient satisfaction surveys to identify opportunities for improvement before the next CAHPS survey. By the time the CAPHS results are published, they have proactively improved their scores.

Unify Actions With Budgeted Priorities: Contact center PX hubs can choose to support only mission-critical priorities. They can drive physician referrals to the practices of newly employed physicians. They can also serve as a part of the standard of care for reducing preventable readmissions. As reported in the Q2 2016 issue of Provider Advisor, one leading healthcare contact center reduced the organization’s readmission rate by 25 percent, decreased CMS fines by nearly $2 million, and raised the kept appointment rate for post-discharge physician visits to 87 percent.

Energize With Innovation: One organization focused their contact center on physician-to-physician consults for referring physicians to the health system’s specialists and sub-specialists. They received physician-to-physician referrals from dozens of states and several foreign countries. Annual, multi-million dollar results prompted the organization’s president to declare the contact center as her “secret weapon.”

Another organization locates a contact center ambassador in each of their emergency departments to capture patients without a PCP and keep them in network. This initiative that provides a steady stream of newly aligned patients referred to network primary care physicians. Another innovation is the inclusion of patient ratings and comments in online provider directories. The scores and comments about a particular physician from previous patients give prospective patients vital information and increase the likelihood of a good match between patient and provider.

Leverage Technology and Personalize the Experiences: Contact centers can include in the patient record a list of the patient’s health goals for proactive outreach. At discharge they can ask patients for permission to contact a family member or caregiver – and store that information in the patient record – to be accessed when it’s time to make certain they are able to get to their follow-up physician appointment.

One leading healthcare contact center offers a patient hotline that embraces patient trust while managing the organization’s revenue cycle. Contact center agents work with patients to understand their best plan for them to remain in network, secure financial clearance, and arrange for a deposit prior to the visit. That organization celebrates “phone hugs” and is shifting the culture from processing transactions to building trust with patients through transformative, empathetic conversations.

Empower your contact center – your patient experience hub team – to personalize the experiences they provide for callers by thinking carefully through the words they incorporate into their conversations. Ask team members to take the CAHPS survey most closely aligned to the patients they serve. Encourage them to take the survey as a typical patient based on a recent experience they have personally had as a patient. Inquire of each team member:

  • what they liked about the survey,
  • what was most challenging about the survey, and
  • what are three ways the contact center (patient experience hub) can assure the best possible experiences for patients?

Opportunities Await: These examples are a snapshot of the consumer-driven shift that is transforming healthcare contact centers into centralized patient experience hubs. How would your patients benefit from integrating access touchpoints into a patient-centric communications center? How can your organization’s historically generic transactions be replaced with personalized connections that build trust and create loyalty? Perhaps the intersection of contact centers and patient experience is precisely the right destination.

Katie Owens, MHA is vice president and practice leader, HealthStream Engagement Institute.

Richard D. Stier, MBA is vice president marketing Echo, a HealthStream Company.