What is this Hospital Trying to Say to Their Patients?

Last week I called a hospital in New Mexico and got the dreaded phone tree. You know the one: “Press one for English, Press two for Spanish, Press three for the Emergency Room, Press four for Maternity and Press five for General Med Surg.” And then, “Press six to repeat the menu.”

  1. What if a patient wanted to pay a bill and get to patient finance? Or what if they wanted to check on their lab results? Or even to connect to a patient and a room? Press zero right? Nope… that sent the caller right back to the loop above.

Now I get why they did it. They are trying to be efficient and reduce delays based on operators and perhaps they are trying to reduce costs. I can promise you they have money walking out the door and driving an hour away to go to another facility where patients can speak with a person.

Phone trees are not inherently bad. In fact, there has been a lot of research that shows consumers would rather work through an automated system over speaking with a person for a lot of routine and transactional kinds of communications. The key, and this is important, is to look at setting up your phone tree with a human (YOUR PATIENT/CUSTOMER) in mind.

The technology is available to have people call in, make a payment, or schedule an appointment without ever speaking with a representative.  BUT, and this is big, if the caller does not hear the option they are looking for and they cannot connect with a person, they will go elsewhere. Or, for those poor hospitals struggling to get paid and/or to improve cash flow, the patient is going to spend their money elsewhere and the hospital will have to pay someone to make a call or they will pay a collection firm to recover the debt.

I can almost hear the conversation that led to this. “Patients are on hold too long.” “We can’t find switchboard operators.” “Let’s make it automated.”

Years ago I worked with an IVR company helping to automate calls and transactions for healthcare providers. I know of a virtual collection firm (well almost virtual) that is serving over 200 hospitals with 16 agents. The rest is automated via IVR, text messaging, and email. All driven by algorithms. They had to invest time to get clear on a variety of things:

  • Who do they want to use the technology?
  • What problem are the callers trying to solve by calling in?
  • What are the 80% of calls that can be automated and the best way to route them?
    • Payments
    • Check a Balance
    • Check a schedule
  • How will you handle the outliers?

Put yourself in your patient’s shoes; this is a good communication practice to begin with. What questions might they have? What might they be afraid of? How can you answer those questions before they are asked?

Our American Healthcare System is on the ropes and leaders are reaching for ways to reduce costs in order to stay in business. Particularly in rural areas. But if the leaders do not slow down and really think through their options, perhaps they need to solicit some expert help. Or, their patients and community will not get the care they need.

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