Streamline Your Medical Answering Service

By Nina Fernandes

Some years ago, I called the telephone answering service for our medical practice. I was resigning as practice manager for a thriving internal medicine group and wanted to advise them of my replacement’s name. Speaking with a supervisor, I advised her of my pending resignation and the new manager’s name for their records. She asked where I was going and I responded that I hadn’t decided. I had several opportunities and would make up my mind in the coming weeks. To my surprise, she asked “Why don’t you come here? We need a good manager and I’m sure you would fit right in!” Taken aback, I politely declined and thanked her for the thought.

Little did I know that that brief conversation would be the beginning of a major career change. The owners of this answering service called the next day. Admittedly, the idea of having my own answering service to play with was entertaining.  After almost 20 years in healthcare, I couldn’t count the number of times I thought “Can’t the answering service get it right? How hard can this be? Answer the phone and follow the instructions. Sheesh!” After several preliminary conversations with the owners, we agreed to meet. Telling myself I was motivated by curiosity and contacts weren’t bad to have, I walked into the most amazing place. Modems firing, lights blinking, a room full of agents wearing headsets and typing like the wind as they moved from caller to caller – I was fascinated. Where were the boxes of Bonbons, women in curlers, slippers, and so forth? What a contrast this was with the image I had in my mind for all this time!  The frightening part was that I knew I wasn’t alone. Most healthcare managers have never seen an answering service and many share similar images. The answering service was often a topic in managers’ meetings or even over lunch.

On my way home I realized I was hooked. My mind was racing with the possibilities. The image of the answering service staff at work was vivid. Who knows about these people? Why didn’t I know about them? Is it a wonder “they can’t get it right” when we don’t know about them and they don’t know about us? Visions of growth and change, bridging the gap between the medical community and the answering service flooded my thoughts. There was so much to be done and someone had to do it.

That was more than 10 years ago. Since that day, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most knowledgeable and innovative people in the industry sharing tips, tricks, and tools. This is a dynamic industry in constant motion, yet it is probably one of the most undervalued, unrecognized, and misunderstood of all the integral support services available to the clients we serve.

Misguided complaints and misunderstood comments are all too common. They include: “You’re just the answering service,” “You must be understaffed,” “I want you to answer our phone in one ring!” (How quickly does their own staff answer the phone?), “What’s wrong with you people?” and “You know that I don’t wear my pager to bed!  Are you stupid?”

If this sounds familiar, then change it or at least reduce the occurrence. An integrated plan to elevate the professional presentation, product quality, and profitability can change your medical answering service. Successfully done, not only can a medical telephone answering service become more profitable, but it can also open the door to securing a higher level staff with compensation comparable to skilled clerical employees in other industries. The cost savings for retaining versus replacing agents would provide a handsome savings. It is possible.

An aggressive approach to positive change involves tackling several focuses at once:

  • Improved individual agent performance via training and incentives.
  • Improved quality of message presentation (brevity and formatting).
  • Development of a cost-effective staffing model.
  • Review and transition all low or no profit accounts to an acceptable status.

The long term impact includes:

  • Increased professional presentation.
  • Higher service level with less staff.
  • Improved product.
  • Improved gross margin.

Performance may vary greatly among agents. Effective hiring, training, and the initiation of a performance incentive program will enhance individual performance. This will ultimately allow better traffic management and higher service levels.

Does your medical answering service have a “standard format” for messages? Is it followed? Have abbreviations been standardized? Defining message and abbreviation standards will provide an improved product and reduce agent errors while minimizing communication problems. Establishing norms for agent performance, aggressive implementation of call control techniques, and continued “customer care” training will enable your medical answering service to meet or exceed industry staffing and call volume standards. These changes will increase overall profitability.

Is your medical answering service operating in a reactive or proactive mode? “Putting out fires” too often becomes the mode at many medical answering services and results in decreased service levels and caller satisfaction. Operating in a response mode can negatively affect the ability to ensure adequate training and development of staff. Lack of available time and energy for effective training and monitoring of performance standards all but ensures ongoing service problems. Service issues generate complaints. Complaint resolution requires time and energy from key staff. Key staff is needed to ensure training and monitor performance. It’s necessary to break the cycle; start today.

[From the February/March 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]