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Harnessing the Power of Phone Interactions in Healthcare

A human touch makes a significant difference in healthcare call interactions where an automation-dominant approach would fall short.

The rise of AI-powered digital tools has convinced some companies that almost every customer service interaction can be automated. But research has shown that mass automation cannot replace friendliness, professionalism, and empathy. Not only are these aspects of humanity essential for improving the patient experience, but they help hospitals convert more callers to patients, whether for primary care or specialty care.

Health systems have had to walk a fine line between managing costs and managing queries in a way that’s both efficient and personable. Parlance delivers automation technology that is deployed strategically to support switchboard operators and call center agents. It is critical to provide a full spectrum of access for consumers to connect with a hospital. However, a significant number of people continue to contact health systems on the phone. Technology can be implemented to help hospital call centers make simple interactions more efficient while giving agents more time to support callers who have complex questions, older callers, and people with language barriers, hearing issues, etc.

Research from The Beryl Institute, based on analysis of more than 300,000 caller records and 12,000 abandoned calls on behalf of 190 hospitals, uncovered a grim statistic: 75% of people who abandon a call do not call back. Hospitals must change if they are to make up lost revenue. The Beryl Institute recommends adding staff and extending hours at call centers — call centers that run 24/7 can increase call volume by 30%, according to the Institute. It also recommends improving access, providing more training, and outsourcing call centers.

The characteristics that set apart callers in a healthcare context compared with callers in other areas such as retail and finance are the personal, often critical nature of these calls.

“Consumers who contact a hospital through its marketing call center generate, on average, nearly three times the amount of revenue for the hospital as compared to the overall patient population,” the Beryl Institute report stated. “That makes these callers critically important customers whether they are calling for a physician referral, class or event registration, or general hospital information. It also makes the impact on potential revenue loss due to abandonment rates one of the most important statistics a hospital needs to quantify and address. Yet it is one that is not often talked about around the executive table, in finance meetings, or as part of strategic discussions. It should be.”

A Medpage Today article noted that more than half (53%) of online healthcare complaints focused on poor communication, especially through phones. Common complaints included being placed on hold indefinitely, and not getting calls returned after repeated messages. It’s not surprising that nearly one in four callers during business hours were hanging up before getting an answer or leaving a voicemail. Long hold times accounted for 35% of complaints. People like their doctor, not their calling experience!

Parlance uses conversational AI to manage routine tasks that contribute to high call volume, such as removing simple internal transfer requests from agents’ workloads to prevent these calls from jamming up service lines. VP of IT Operations at a $2B Midwest health system says this, “Departments…are lining up to be next on Parlance.” Intelligent call routing not only solves agent burnout, but it also saves many Parlance healthcare clients upwards of $1M+ per year. A recent use case from this same large health system saw significant productivity and cost efficiency gains from simply adding Parlance to an after-hours answering service. This was accomplished by:

  • Reduction of on-call pay and overtime pay 
  • Hiring avoidance for multiple vacant positions
  • Increased caller self-service 

“This will be the standard for our organization moving forward,” said the health system VP. Health systems of any size will get callers on the right path, reduce call volume, improve patient experience, and save human capital when they approach AI-powered communication correctly.

The Baird Group‘s research through the report, The Power of a First Phone Call, examined patients’ likelihood of returning to a medical facility, based on how call center/engagement center agents respond to calls and the quality of those interactions. It offers a window into the patient experience and underscores the need for a nuanced approach to communication. A human touch can make a significant difference in these interactions where an automation-dominant approach would fall short.

Callers to hospitals value friendliness and empathy even more than before the Covid-19 pandemic. People seeking primary care appointments who said that the person answering the phone was friendly were 3.4 times more likely to use the facility for care pre-Covid and 4.4 times as likely post-Covid, the report stated. An agent who is able to convey a sincere interest in the caller’s needs and appointment access have the highest correlation to a patient’s likelihood to return or recommend to others, according to the report.

“The attendant’s ability to show interest, empathy and caring can leave the caller with a positive experience even when appointment access is limited. This benefit may be lost if organizations shift to a fully digital appointment scheduling process,” the report noted.

Empathy had more of an impact for patients booking specialty care appointments (as opposed to primary care). On the flip side, feeling ignored, having to repeat oneself, or slow or ineffective responsiveness reduced the likelihood of people calling the hospital again.

Given that hospitals and patient access contact centers are frequently understaffed, engagement center training paired with strategically deployed tech makes the jobs of patient access center staff easier. Setting phone standards helps establish and guide how agents should respond to calls. Their professionalism reflects on the health system’s brand and influences patients’ willingness to use their services. Parlance conversational AI enables patient access center staff to deliver more personalized service while using automation for easy tasks, such as authenticating a caller’s identity, verifying insurance, confirming or canceling appointments, and giving directions to patients for an upcoming visit. This pragmatic approach to leveraging AI frees up agents to be more available for callers who really need help and improves patient experience, while also boosting productivity and cost efficiency.

Photo: sturti, Getty Images