The urgent problems facing patient appointment scheduling at the contact center
I recently traveled the country and spoke directly to telephone triage nurses and non-clinical support staff, because talking with the people who do the work is the best way to learn what's really going on at healthcare contact centers and other medical organizations.
The recent weakening of Covid—a virus that wreaked havoc on all aspects of the American health system—means I had the opportunity to pay in-person visits to some of our nurse triage clients.
Reconnecting in-person was an amazing and eye-opening experience. I heard stories from many nurses, whose recollection of Covid’s assault on the American health system were candid and emotional. The nurses and non-clinical staff recounted, in their own words, their frustrations and exhaustion with scheduling appointments, resolving phone calls, and managing medical records.
One theme is consistent: No one in the healthcare industry can endure that work environment ever again. Which means we must take steps to ensure they won't be forced to ever again. There will be more pandemics, but we need to change the way we work before the next infectious disease outbreak, or the mass exodus of the industry's overwhelmed workers will continue.
It's time to push patient access systems into the 21st century by making changes in processes, technology, and staff.
Providers, telehealth nurses, appointment schedulers, and non-clinical staff are owed, after what they endured during Covid, the tools necessary to ensure the good health of the American people.
Call center staff, when equipped with the right technology, can prevent unnecessary visits to the emergency department or urgent care center, which will in turn reduce the per capita cost of healthcare.
We must also utilize self-care tools such as patient self-scheduling software, which empowers patients to schedule their appointments digitally on patient portals. Self-scheduling streamlines patient access, drives growth, improves the patient experience, enhances sustainability, and reduces telephone calls.
Organizations plagued by long call times and long wait times should consider building a self-scheduling platform. They should also consider automating their scheduling staff's workflows by equipping them with AI-powered call support software, which helps phone staff more efficiently and effectively perform their jobs.
Telephone triage nurses are overwhelmed by the sheer number of patient calls they must handle
In my talks with telehealth nurses—who because of their dwindling ranks must handle a shocking number of phone calls—several things became abundantly clear:
- Nurses are burnt-out from the pandemic.
- Call center answering services are short-staffed, and it's affecting their ability to deliver quality patient care.
- Patient calls often begin with repeated complaints about it being impossible to talk with a nurse to schedule an appointment. Either there are wait times in excess of 60 minutes; or there are no open slots available; or appointment center hours of operation are inconvenient; or patients decide, because of their negative prior experiences, that it's not worth their time to seek care advice or treatment at all.
- Contact centers are in a constant state of flux—and their staff are heartbroken about what sick patients must go through just to schedule an appointment.
These contact center challenges create serious problems for the American health system: delays in care, sicker patents, increased costs, and undesirable outcomes.
There are solutions. Below I've listed 7 strategies contact centers can implement to reduce call volume and slash handle times. These best practices will ensure your call center performs at peak optimization every single day.
#1: Equip your staff with call support software
For your telephone nurses and support staff to perform at top-of-license, you must give them the tools they need to thrive.
AI-powered call support software streamlines appointment calls by automating steps in your staff's workflows—steps that traditionally needed to be performed manually.
By automating these steps, nurses can focus entirely on helping patients, rather than on navigating different systems and EHRs. With AI-software, your staff isn't forced to desperately click through different tools or furiously flip through manuals. They can confidently and quickly resolve phone calls—one after another.
Even better is if the call support software has built-in clinical guidance such as Schmitt Thompson Clinical Content. This way, telephone nurses need not frantically search for relevant information during their phone calls with patients. Everything they need—a 360-degree view of both patients and providers—is automatically available to staff in real-time.
#2: Build a patient self-scheduling platform
To address excessive call volume, one option is to offer patients an additional point of access: patient self-scheduling.
Patient self-scheduling is an increasingly important component of holistic healthcare services. As a consequence of Covid, patients now not only want, but demand, the ability to schedule their own appointments online. Providers must evolve to meet this new demand.
Give patients what they want when they want it—it's as simple as that. In today's internet age, patients want self-service, which fosters stronger engagement and better outcomes. Self-scheduling empowers patients to initiate care as soon as symptoms surface, which ensures timely care and acknowledges the patient as a consumer.
Self-scheduling also reduces call volume by more than 30%—and this takes an enormous burden off of your phone staff.
#3: Stay open 24/7, 365 days a year
There are 168 hours in a week. Your staff must be available 168 of those hours, or you're not listening to your patients.
Patients facing health issues want prompt care advice—and they want to schedule appointments immediately—for the sake of their health and their peace of mind. Patients love having the ability to connect with nurses at any time, and they get irritated when they must wait until business hours to call.
#4: Focus on patient-first innovation
In the 25 years telephone triage has been in existence, it has never been more relevant than it is today. Covid and technology have catapulted telehealth nursing to a place of great importance in the U.S. health system.
Telephone triage has evolved into a vital entry point for clinical care. It is a specialty of nursing that is:
- Based on evidence.
- Founded on standards of care.
- Proven to have a positive impact on outcomes.
- Cost effective and aligned with organizational goals.
When revamping and refining your patient access channels, they should also meet the above four criteria. This will ensure your access platform is durable, and that it simultaneously optimizes both your internal operations and your patient care.
In more than 50% of telephone triage assessments, nurses’ dispositions require no further action from patients. Patients accept the advice without leaving their homes, which saves themselves and the health system a costly visit to the emergency room or doctor’s office.
Telephone triage is thus a fantastic solution to healthcare’s current resource and staffing scarcity. The DCD reports that 37% of adult patients prefer a remote visit to an in-person office appointment. The evidence is there: Telehealth nursing is a non-negotiable feature in the continuum of care.
#5: Don't tolerate the same old—evolve
Patients are so over the inconveniences of Covid. The uncertainty of the illness—and no in-person care, no appointments, and no one to talk to—has taken its toll.
It’s been a long 2.5 years and patients and caregivers alike are owed options and pathways to care that lead to healthy outcomes. Your organization must therefore be willing to implement new techniques in order to push the U.S. healthcare system into the future.
#6: Reduce labor costs
Staffing shortages are rampant in all areas of healthcare. Entry-level positions like appointment schedulers, in particular, are facing immense difficulties with hiring and retention.
This is a big problem because often these springboard positions see new hires transferring to other departments as soon as they are able. This means that, although the organization technically retains an employee, the appointment center does not. Time and resources are wasted on training, and another employee must be hired.
This cycle costs an average of $10K per trainee. In traditional call center settings, labor is the greatest expense of any budget. To reduce labor costs, both patient self-scheduling and call support software are excellent options. Self-scheduling reduces the number of staff members who must be hired, and call support software slashes training time by 70%.
#7: Maintain safety & quality by supporting your telephone nurses with continuous training & support
Telehealth nursing is difficult but extremely important. To ensure your nurses are satisfied with their jobs—and that they continuously perform at high levels—you must maximize their effectiveness by giving them superior training, support, and incentives. You must pay them more than fairly; you must equip them with cutting-edge technological tools; you must reward longevity and excellence.
Don’t treat your telephone nurses like manual laborers. They are an essential part of your operation, and must be treated as such. When your nurses are happy, your patients are safe.
I have led telehealth nursing operations for decades. Quality and safety are critical components of healthy patient access. I have trained thousands of nurses and taught dozens of organizations how to maintain safety during remote access.
In times like these, when staffing shortages are endemic, it’s tempting for leaders to compromise on quality, or to throw up their hands and simply do without telephone triage. But the consequences of this approach will come back to bite you: You’ll lose patient trust and ultimately damage your brand.
Leaders must instead innovate. This means investing in call center optimization—and refining the roles of your nurses and agents.
To learn more about how organizations can improve their telephone triage operations, check out my blog: “Telehealth Nursing: How To Build A Powerful Telephone Triage System.”