Zed Williamson

Answering Patient Phone Calls: How to Convert More Appts

Growing your practice requires you to provide the best patient experience, beginning the moment they call your office.

woman talking on phone

A person doesn’t have to be a patient to have a bad experience with your practice. Yes, in fact, they grade your practice long before they ever step foot in your front office.

So what can you do?

Seventy percent of patients still prefer to call their doctor rather than communicate electronically via secure email or text. However, if a patient has to wait on hold for several minutes, has a bad experience with a receptionist, or doesn’t get their questions answered, they may go elsewhere.

In fact, we’ve even listened to calls where the patient becomes frustrated by the overall experience – whether that’s the menu of options or the non-verbal cues from the actual human being on the other end. When a patient calls with a complaint, a poor experience like this only makes them more upset.

As a private practice physician, you have to balance delivering high-quality care with running a business. However, growing your practice requires providing the best patient experience, and this begins the minute someone in your office picks up the phone.

How incoming calls affect your practice

Research has found that 53% of online healthcare complaints involved bad communication, mostly over the phone.

These negative interactions can involve everything from rude staff who lack patience, a phone tree with multiple options that leave patients confused, and patients being sent to voicemail repeatedly rather than communicating with a live person. Voicemail, in particular, is ineffective.

voicemail has an 85% abandonment rate

All these issues may seem like a typical part of the customer service process, but when you’re trying to better serve patients, they could mean the difference between expanding your practice or losing patients to other healthcare providers who are much more responsive.

Patients now have more options

They can ask friends and family members for recommendations, do a quick Google search to find doctors in their area, read online reviews or visit local Facebook pages to see what current and past patients post on a practice’s page.

google search plus rating

Sixty-eight percent of consumers begin their quest for health information via search engines using their mobile phones, and 77% use online reviews to find a new doctor.

It may seem weird that people are finding doctors in the same way that we find a new pair of shoes, but it’s the world we live in. And as physicians and medical professionals, it’s important that you adapt to the patient’s journey in finding a great provider for their needs.

So, what’s the big deal with phone calls if they’re searching online?

Delivering a better patient call experience can help you better manage your online reputation along with giving your patients the best experience. Medical offices deal with sensitive issues — sometimes even life-or-death situations — so it’s crucial that patients feel compassion and warmth in the calling experience.

This is especially important when patients call with complaints, because an impersonal or unsatisfying call experience could mean you lose that patient to another practice. An online experience still can’t replicate the empathy and compassion necessary in these situations.

Why incoming calls present a challenge for practices

Despite the importance of answering patient phone calls, many practices struggle with the call experience.

Practices often have challenges with incoming calls due to a number of reasons, including:

Overwhelming Number of Calls

If your practice is busy, the volume of calls can be overwhelming. A medical practice may field dozens or hundreds of calls in a day. Without the right level of staffing, your practice may miss many of these calls or not answer them in a timely manner.

Inadequate or Poor Training

Most people aren’t customer service pros, nor are they trained in superior telephone etiquette. They need to be trained how to answer calls, or at least provided with a script or protocols for how to answer different kinds of patient interactions, or common questions from potential patients. We find in working with medical practices that they often lack nonverbal training and how that affects the patients’ perception of the practice overall.

When a patient calls with a complaint, it’s even more important to be trained and prepared. Not only must the call be managed with care, but the patient must also be calmed and reassured (verbally and nonverbally) that they will be taken care of‍. This is no simple task, so many training programs fall short.

zed williamson responsibility quote

Variation in Patient Call Volume

Managing the patient call experience also is difficult for practices because call flow and call volume vary during different times of the day. If you don’t understand these patterns, you can’t allocate staff resources effectively.

For example, if you know call volume is highest in the morning, you may want to have three receptionists working those hours instead of two staff members. There are several free call center calculators online that can help you assess how many receptionists you may need, so you can better align your staffing with your call volume.

What other practices are doing to manage incoming patient calls

To manage incoming patient calls, some practices have turned to call answering technology, like interactive voice response (IVR) systems, to solve these challenges. Phone marketing automation and data-gathering are two major advantages of this approach.

A modern IVR is able to handle a higher volume of calls than a human can, while gathering insights that help you better understand patterns in your call volume and how many calls you’re actually missing.

It also can reduce inbound calls to your practice during business hours, which could give your staff more time to focus on other administrative or in-person customer service tasks that allow your practice to deliver a better patient experience.

Other practices have turned to medical overflow answering services that help them tackle the volume of calls and deliver a patient experience that turns into appointments.

How to improve the patient call experience

1. Focus on quality, not quantity

Patients can get frustrated if they have to listen to a long introductory message or have to provide the same information again and again — it’s basically the equivalent of waiting in a virtual lobby.

To shorten this period on the phone, keep your introductory messages short and sweet and consider using secure technology that matches callers’ phone numbers with information stored in your database. That way, when they finally get on the phone with your staff, a receptionist can quickly confirm their information and begin serving them.

2. Invest in training

Give your staff guidance on how to answer patient phone calls. Develop scripts or a guide to direct your efforts and make the process consistent. Online call center training or working with a team like TrackableMed will help as well.

training script tip

3. Narrow down call options for patients

IVR systems can enable your practice to deliver 24/7 service, but they can negatively affect the patient call experience if there are too many options. Narrow down call options and make it easy for patients to opt-out and speak to a receptionist if none of the options suits their needs.

4. Expand into digital

One effective way to better manage call volume is to give patients multiple methods to contact your office. If your practice doesn’t have a modern website where patients can book appointments online, start there.

5. Consider a call overflow service

Some offices will do overflow messaging where they’ll pay an after-hours call center to handle these messages. Missed calls can lead to lost revenue for your practice, so using a call overflow service can help your practice deliver personalized service with a live agent, along with giving you access to data on the types of patient calls and the number of appointments set — which directly correlates to your revenue.

learn more about call overflow

Answer patient phone calls the right way

As a healthcare provider, your main goal is to give patients the best care possible. However, the patient call experience also is a core part of how you serve them.

Investing in staff training, online resources, and technology can empower your practice to answer patient phone calls in a better way and ensure that patients always have a good experience when they interact with your practice — whether it’s in-person or on the phone.

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