The Future of Healthcare Call Centers

By Kate Bolseth

Telephones have evolved dramatically since their development in the nineteenth century, and so has the telephone support role provided by operators. No longer manually plugging calls on a switchboard, today’s operators perform a more specialized role, especially within a healthcare setting.

The healthcare call center remains a public voice of the facility – the primary contact many patients, prospective patients, and visitors have with the hospital. Being the first interaction, there is a big responsibility to provide exemplary service and set the tone for an overall positive impression.

Pressure from the Healthcare Reform Act to reduce costs throughout hospitals is helping fuel new communication efficiencies that save time and improve patient care. With technology advances in the contact center have also come the added duties of managing code calls, emergency dispatch, and a general shift to assisting hospital staff streamline overall communications. More recently, call centers are gaining attention as potential revenue generators with opportunities to perform after hours answering services to other care providers.

Mobile Is the New Desktop: The widespread adoption of smartphones has dramatically altered the communication landscape. People can search a directory and locate a desired number themselves, no matter where they are.

Employees within healthcare facilities are a mobile bunch, and we are seeing many hospitals in the midst of transition, moving towards providing or supporting smartphone usage among their staff. Clinicians, an especially mobile group, expect to quickly and easily reach anyone they need to communicate with. Smartphones allow them access to staff directories and on call scheduling to facilitate the fast, easy messaging they want and need. The availability of information, effectively at the caller’s fingertips, means a significant increase in direct peer-to-peer communicating. This self-service model increases provider productivity, satisfaction, and efficiency; it also reduces internal traffic through the call center.

The reduction in caller traffic is important because it gives hospital operators the flexibility to spend more time on customer service and provide support for code calls and other messaging. Of course, the operator role as backup, with ability to step in and direct critical communications if other methods fail, remains tantamount to patient care and safety.

Clinical Initiatives and Emergency Response: Call centers in clinical settings are involved in multiple applications, and the operator role has expanded well beyond answering and directing phone inquiries. Call center staff are expected to have advanced skills in customer service, emergency dispatch, and messaging to support these other functions.

Acting as the nucleus of the hospital’s communications, contact centers announce code calls for everything from fires to infant abductions. Providing fast, accurate announcements is crucial to patient and campus safety, and they are not just for the intercom anymore. Code calls are more sophisticated and include instant messaging options – pre-programmed for notifying large groups of employees or specific groups, such as rapid response teams or code STEMI responders – on their mobile devices. These pre-written messages and notification trees save critical time in emergencies where seconds count.

Customer Service: Technology is certainly allowing call centers to do more with less. In addition to decreased call volume due to smartphones and staff access to internal directories, call centers are also receiving fewer internal calls because of speech recognition software. Speech recognition is able to direct many people to specific departments or care providers, leaving operators available to handle special requests and provide support for alternate services.

Call recording is another feature changing the landscape of contact centers. Call recording enables centers to document proof of correct handling for code calls and emergency responses. It categorizes calls to enhance new operator training, particularly in complex areas, such as emergency dispatch. Recording also helps identify opportunities for call handling improvement and for future automation to further facilitate call center specialization.

The ability to offer call center specialization and excellent customer service is becoming more important as hospitals and health systems compete with one another for customers. Beyond merely encouraging patients to select the facility for delivering care, call centers are increasingly looking to external primary care providers (PCPs) and other health professionals to supply additional revenue by contracting with the call center for after hours answering services.

Financial pressure on hospitals is giving rise to these creative revenue-generating solutions. Advanced operator consoles and Web directories mean call centers can process answering service calls from multiple locations and even provide individualized greetings for each incoming request (for example, answering with the name of the office the call is being directed from). An after hours answering service keeps operators engaged during low volume times and generates revenue for the department.

Virtualization: Technology has advanced to not only allow individuals mobile freedom and flexibility, but operators themselves are more mobile and no longer bound to a single, on-site facility. The trend among hospitals is to consolidate into health systems, and these mergers create opportunities to combine resources.

Geographical freedom allows multiple call centers to consolidate into a single hub, reducing overhead operating costs and space requirements. The technological advancements that permit consolidation are also enabling operators to perform their jobs from alternate locations, such as a home office or satellite centers, in the event of a disaster or other emergency.

Tomorrow: The role of the hospital in patient care is changing. Procedures that used to require hospitalization are now performed in outpatient clinics. Standard lengths of stay have been shortened, and patients are transferred home or to rehabilitation facilities sooner. Primary care providers, visiting nurses, and even insurance companies are delivering more continuing care management to monitor patients with chronic diseases and prevent the need for emergency room visits. In short, care delivery is moving to a broader continuum, of which the hospital is becoming a smaller piece.

These changes in the care delivery model will push healthcare operators further into areas of specialization, and call centers will offer nurse triage services, patient transfer handling, and appointment scheduling and reminders. Operators, like physicians, are likely to specialize in specific roles and many may have the flexibility to work from anywhere that they can connect to the web of information. The quest for additional revenue will continue and entirely new functions may soon be added to the extensive list of call center skills. The call center will change, but as the backbone of critical communications, it will remain an integral part of the healthcare environment.

Kate Bolseth is COO of Amcom and oversees Amcom’s operations across professional services, technical support, information technology, and human resources, reporting to the CEO and president of Amcom’s parent company, USA Mobility.

[From the February/March 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]