December 1999 Bulletin

Computer telephony saves time, money

Options can increase patient retention improve satisfaction

By Rosemarie Nelson

An automated phone system can be a convenient, cost-effective solution to the medical practice's patient communication needs. With just the touch of a button, the practice can remind patients of appointments, provide access to patient education, notify patients of rescheduled appointments and more.

A successful medical practice is always looking to improve productivity and increase patient satisfaction. Computer telephony allows patients to interact with a computer through their telephone. Patients can achieve a high degree of satisfaction by accessing the information they want when they want it. Computer telephony applications used to be limited to touch tone banking. Today, there are many different applications that can be implemented to meet the needs of the medical practice.

Physicians' offices can automatically call patients to remind them of scheduled appointments, and ask for confirmations. Patients can retrieve lab results for selected tests by entering their unique personal identification number (PIN) through their telephone. Patients can inquire on account balance information including what has been submitted to their insurance carrier. Patients can access educational material via the phone at a time that is convenient to them. Patients can initiate prescription renewals via the phone. Medical practice administrators can notify staff regarding schedule changes. Practices can survey their patients regarding their satisfaction levels and implement other questionnaires via telephony applications.

All these options serve to increase patient retention, improve patient satisfaction ratings, improve practice productivity as well as staff communications, improve revenue streams and improve compliance. There are an unlimited number of possibilities that allow the medical practice to provide more efficient service to patients as well as employees, while minimizing the need for recruiting and retaining additional staff to support the increased service levels.

In fact, programs exist that automatically remind the patient that their prescription is nearing a completion date, and they need to take action rather than waiting for the patient to complete their prescription and try to get a reissue in a crisis state. Imagine the peace-of-mind each patient would feel if they could dial a number and hear their pre-exam or pre-surgery instructions one more time, or simply listen to the explanation of a procedure again.

These programs save time, money and effort in the practice, freeing staff from many routine tasks. In an average single physician practice, the annual cost of mailing appointment reminder cards can reach $5,000 to $7,000. With this in mind, the purchase of software and hardware can easily be cost-justified with little effort. Many opportunities exist as well for outsourcing to a service bureau, as an alternative to installing software, a server and phone lines in the practice.

Typically, automated reminder systems include software, hardware, and communications components. Your vendor proposal will include a software license and hardware such as a PC configured with a telecommunications board. This board in the PC is what connects your system solution (software and hardware) to your telephone line(s). A patient appointment reminder automated solution would accept a file from your appointment scheduling system (typically your daily appointment report file) and use that information to automatically place calls to your patients reminding them of their appointment. The hardware and telephone lines make the physical phone call connection to that patient's phone number and the software provides the voice messages to the patient reminding them of their appointment date and time while requesting a confirmation response that is then reported back to you. All this is done with no effort by your staff.

PhoneTree (, SmartTalk ( and TeleVox ( are typical systems available to support the medical practice. Features to compare and contrast include the ability to customize messages within your own practice, flexibility in selecting groups of patients via extract programs running against your practice management information system and retrieval of call report data.

Automated phone systems can remind your patients and query your patients while improving the operating efficiency of the practice, and improve patient satisfaction simultaneously. Isn't that what the successful practice of today is all about?

Rosemarie Nelson is a health care information technology consultant in Syracuse, N.Y.

Computer Link welcomes suggestions about future topics for the column and questions about the use of computers in orthopaedic practice. Send your suggestions to the Bulletin at AAOS, 6300 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Ill. 60018.

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