I was recently talking to a friend of mine, who mentioned she had called a urology practice. She quickly commented that she hated to call them because “she had to wait for so long for someone to talk to.” A few years ago, when I was CEO of Sequence Health, I saw firsthand how difficult it can be for physician practices to keep up with the volume of phone calls that come in. I want to share my experience from a specific orthopedic practice that illustrates how difficult it is to answer patient calls on a timely basis.

The practice experience

In 2015, a 38-provider orthopedic group came to us because they weren’t able to keep up with their call volume with 20 dedicated telephone reps. They were spending approximately $19,000 each week for both variable- and fixed-cost call center expenses, and the CEO of the practice was tasked with reducing overhead and growing practice revenue.

On Mondays, the practice was receiving around 2,800 calls. Less than 300 of those calls were answered in 30 seconds or less, which is considered the industry standard for good customer service (also known as telephone service factor, or TSF). Approximately 1,200 calls were answered but it took greater than 30 seconds. As a matter of fact, the average hold time was 5 minutes, with some patients waiting 20 minutes! 1,300 patient calls were abandoned by the caller (during the morning, 6 in 10 patients were hanging up because a rep didn’t answer the phone soon enough).

The practice had too few reps to handle the calls, was using old telephone equipment with a limited number of trunks (which was causing fast busy signals for some patients), didn’t have enough office space to accommodate more reps, needed to upgrade equipment, and had no real experience managing a call center. But those aren’t the fundamental reasons the practice wasn’t able to keep up with the phone.

The patient experience

One of the practice’s previous patients had fallen over the weekend, went to the local emergency room, fractured her leg and was put in a temporary cast. When she left the ER, the attending physician had told her to call her orthopedic surgeon first thing Monday morning. On Monday morning, she anxiously calls the orthopedic practice when it opens, and immediately gets a busy signal. She hangs up, tries again, and a few tries later, gets through to a recording saying that a representative will be with her as soon as possible.

After a 5-minute hold, she is able to get through and book an urgent appointment, but is frustrated that the practice doesn’t seem to value her time.

The underlying problem

To understand the underlying reason the practice wasn’t able to keep up with calls, let’s dig into the practice’s call volumes on a typical Monday. When we break call volumes down by the half hour, we see that volumes were significantly higher in the morning. From 7-7:30am, for example, the practice was receiving almost 350 calls, which would require 51 full-time reps (and remember the ortho practice only had 20). If we look at the call volume from 12:30-1 (around 40 calls), there’s a significant dip that would only require 8 reps. As you would expect, call volumes surge again in the afternoon, at times requiring 27 reps.

The first thing the practice considered was hiring more reps. If the practice were to hire 31 more reps so that they could handle the largest half-hour surges in calls, they would have 42 reps sitting around waiting to answer the phone in those times of the day when there’s a dip in call volume. Not to mention, even adding 10 reps would amount to a 50% increase in weekly spend—$28,750 for this practice.

That’s the dilemma with a human call center: you either improve access to healthcare, but also increase cost, or you keep costs down, but make it harder for patients to access the care they need. You can’t do both, until now.

With far too much waste already in healthcare that’s driving up costs, having 42 reps sitting around at various times during the week wasn’t a good answer for this practice.

Our answer (pun intended)

With technology, we can both cut costs and increase access to healthcare. Transform9 has the first orthopedic virtual assistant call center that can handle surges in call volume with ease, and costs significantly less than the cost of full-time reps. The virtual assistant is built with the technology at Amazon Web Services on behalf of our clients.

The advantages of automating these recurring and redundant call center conversations with existing patients are clear:

  1. 24/7 availability
  2. Built in the Amazon Web Services cloud and scales on demand
  3. No busy signals and all calls answered
  4. No wait time for a rep once a call is answered
  5. Conversation is designed to accomplish the caller’s goal or transfer to a real agent
  6. A fraction of the cost
  7. Patients call the same orthopedic phone number
  8. Patients can schedule appointments using voice, which is safer than texting and driving

In today’s environment, with the costs of healthcare out of reach for many people, every opportunity that lowers costs, but improves access to care, should be a high priority for healthcare providers. This may be a small contribution to lowering healthcare, but an important one.

Alan L. Creighton

Author Alan L. Creighton

Alan is the Founder & CEO of Transform9, currently building the first specialty-specific, automated, conversational voicebot virtual assistant for physician practices that lets patients communicate how and when they want.

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