Unlock the Potential of Your Answering Service: Creating a Better Patient Experience


Patient experience matters, even after business hours. Using automation to standardize medical answering service workflows ensures high-quality processes for inbound patient calls by directing patients to the support they need and protecting the time and privacy of providers and staff.

This post is the third installment of a series highlighting the benefits of treating your answering service as a strategic asset that can effect positive change across the enterprise rather than a basic cost center that shouldn’t receive much attention. Today, we’ll explore why a well-designed, automated solution facilitates a better experience for patients.

Always-On, 24/7 Access

If you talk to the average healthcare consumer, they’ll probably have a story about a time when they needed their provider but couldn’t reach them; maybe it was outside of normal business hours, or maybe they were just busy with other patients. Either way, it’s a frustrating experience that can turn dangerous if a patient is experiencing an emergent event.

With a cloud-based, automated answering service, patients have convenient, 24/7 access to your clinics that doesn’t simultaneously overwhelm your providers with unstructured communication. No matter what the patient needs or when the need arises, they can dial a familiar clinic number and get connected to the help they need. The phone-based workflows used by PerfectServe are intuitive and promote a consistent experience for patients, meaning they’ll never be subjected to the variable quality and demeanor common with live answering service agents.

No Portal Required

While usage of patient portals has increased since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, there are still many patients who never—or almost never—use them. One report suggests that, in 2021, only about 40% of patients accessed their medical records via patient portal at least once.1 That’s not an insignificant percentage, but it still means that more than half of patients are not using portals.

The reasons vary, but some of the most common complaints facing patient portals are the dated and confusing interfaces, the need to update apps and passwords frequently and remember login credentials, and the fact that getting answers, even to basic inquiries, can take hours or even days.

Take a surgery cancellation. If the procedure is set to take place within the next 24 to 48 hours, a portal message to the provider’s office won’t cut it. There’s no guarantee a provider—or anyone for that matter—will see the message in time to cancel the appointment, alert the provider, and initiate the rescheduling process. With an automated answering service, health systems can build this option into their phone tree. When a patient hears the option to “cancel an upcoming surgery or procedure,” they can rest assured their request to cancel is addressed immediately and all parties will be notified. 

Similarly, if a patient wants to review pre-surgery requirements, they will probably log in to their portal, send a request, and cross their fingers for a timely response. With an automated answering service, the phone tree could have an automated reminder built into its prompt. A patient can simply select to hear surgery requirements or, if necessary, ask to speak to a triage nurse. This gives them the information they need and quickly relieves any anxiety about getting a timely response through the portal. If a chat with the triage nurse turns into a telehealth appointment with the on-call provider, patients can be warned before they consent to the appointment. No surprise bills and no frustrated patients!

An automated answering service gives patients consistent access to their providers using a direct communication channel—if you can dial a phone, you can make a connection. Some health systems have also layered patient engagement technology on top of this answering service access, which enables things like bidirectional patient-to-provider text messaging and ad hoc video visits.

Patient-Directed Menu

Though live answering service agents mean well, they’ve got a couple things going against them: they’re usually not medically trained, and they’re human. The former makes it difficult for them to properly ascertain and interpret all of the details they hear from patients, and the latter means that they’re prone to mistakes—that’s just part of being a human.

The self-directed menu of an enhanced answering service means the patient is in total control of their destiny. If they’ve got a persistent sinus infection and need to schedule a clinic visit, a voicemail requesting follow-up will likely suffice. If they’ve got piercing abdominal pain and need to speak with the triage nurse or on-call physician for advice, that connection can happen in mere seconds. The patient knows what she wants, and the answering service lets her choose the menu options to make it happen—every time.

Automated Routine Requests

If you’ve got a simple medication refill request for your doctor, why should it take an extended conversation with a live agent to submit your request? In short, it shouldn’t. Answering service agents are often required to run through a laundry list of questions regardless of who’s calling, and this can turn a should-be-short call into something much more frustrating.

By tapping the latest in answering service technology, practices throughout your system can present patients with simple and repeatable phone workflows that allow basic activities like medication refills and appointment requests to be completed in seconds. If a patient remembers their medication refill at 8 PM, they can call the clinic, select the correct menu option, and leave a brief message with pertinent details, and the system can confirm that their request will be handled as soon as the office opens the next business day. Importantly, this doesn’t only apply to after-hours calls—even during office hours, these types of requests can be automated to give valuable time back to providers and other staff while ensuring patient needs are always attended to in a timely manner.

Access to On-Call Clinical Support

On the flip side, sometimes human contact is absolutely necessary. In those instances, patients should be certain that they can reach someone if the situation warrants a live conversation. For practices that still rely on pagers and live answering services, negative outcomes are always possible. Maybe an on-call physician leaves their phone on the nightstand, only to miss an incoming urgent call because they’ve set the phone to vibrate. Or maybe an agent references a dated call sheet and tries to connect a patient to the wrong physician at 11:30 PM.

Because an automated answering service relies on proven technology, up-to-date schedules, and escalation pathways, these negative consequences are less likely due in part to better workflow design. Problems maintaining a proper call sheet? Manage on-call schedules in your scheduling application or directly in the answering service platform to ensure that all after hours communications are directed to the correct on-call caregiver. Problems with providers missing calls? Build escalation paths (and persistent reminders) into your workflows to minimize instances of communications falling through the cracks, helping patients reach the right live provider when they need one.

No Dropped, Misinterpreted, or Misdirected Calls

To put a finer point on some of the benefits we’ve alluded to above, it’s not unusual for a live answering service to drop, misinterpret, or misdirect patient calls. Whether because of faulty or dated infrastructure, lack of medical training, incorrect on-call schedules, or a mixture of all three, patients who call clinics after hours can easily find themselves disconnected or in the wrong place with no resolution for their original inquiry. Unfortunately, most after hours services lack the technology to confirm whether callers ultimately find resolution, which can create critical—and preventable—gaps in care.

An automated answering service does away with guesswork and relies on advanced routing automation to bypass human issues like dropped calls, hold times, and unclear call follow-through and outcomes. In PerfectServe’s case, this functionality is appropriately called Dynamic Intelligent Routing®. In the same way that a driver need not understand the inner workings of an engine to properly operate a car, the patient need not understand the complexities of technology-enabled workflows to properly engage with an automated answering service. Just call the office, select the right options, and you’re good to go.

Patient Inquiries More Likely to Reach Resolution

For a patient, the last thing they want when calling their doctor’s office with an important question is … a cliffhanger. If the appointment on Thursday needs to move to Monday because of a last-minute scheduling conflict, it’s inconvenient at best when this simple change can’t be made by contacting the answering service. If a parent calls a pediatric clinic after hours with serious concerns about her child’s health, failing to connect her with the right on-call provider could turn into an unnecessary ED visit. Maybe the “problem” wasn’t a problem at all, but how was she supposed to know without consulting a knowledgeable clinician?

By switching to an automated answering service solution with “always-on” capability and intuitive, predefined communication workflows, you can increase the chances that a given patient inquiry reaches an appropriate resolution. This also means automation can help reduce potential negative consequences from mistakes or missed connections—like losing dissatisfied patients to other health systems, unnecessary readmissions or resource utilization (as in the ED visit above), or even negative clinical outcomes.

The PerfectServe Experience

All of these benefits add up to a more satisfying experience for your health system’s patients that likely can’t be replicated by legacy answering services.

PerfectServe has been in the business of building clinical workflows for 25 years, and we understand how important it is for patients, providers, and everyone else involved in the care journey to have access to reliable communication channels that connect them to the information they need.

Our medical answering service is a proven solution capable of streamlining communication workflows for your owned and affiliated medical practices to give patients the access and experience they deserve. Contact us today to learn more. 

Already a PerfectServe customer? Learn how to use our medical answering service at every site within your health system.

1 Patients are using portals more than ever—and high adoption is linked to shorter hospital stays, Insider Intelligence: https://www.insiderintelligence.com/content/patients-using-portals-more-than-ever-and-high-adoption-linked-shorter-hospital-stays

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