June 2000 Bulletin

Unreturned calls are risky

Patients may question quality of care

By Sandra Lee Breisch

How do patients feel when physicians don’t return their phone calls?

"They’re angry, frustrated and unhappy with the service that paints a negative view of the relationship," explains Steven P. Fiore, administrator, Brigham Orthopedic Associates in Boston. "Patients question whether they’re getting good quality care."

The bottom line: they think they are not valued as a customer.

Yet, every call does not need to be handled by the physician, notes Fiore, whose 17 orthopaedists practicing out of four locations receive 25 to 30 calls each per day. "Many patients call to make or break appointments, receive test results, fill or refill prescriptions, schedule pre-operative or post-operative procedures, or receive instructions on how to deal with their musculoskeletal problems," he says.

But there are ways to keep the flow of communication going between patients and physician so patients gets the proper care.

Fiore suggests that your practice administrator or other assigned personnel manually track the demands of patients’ calls and "address the problem." Gather data on the reason and volume of calls, what time of day or night calls come in and which physician gets the most calls. The number of staff using your phone lines for outgoing calls might also be a reason why patients get busy signals or the physician gets incomplete messages from patients.

"This data will help your practice identify the root of the problems," says Fiore. "It will also help you identify which staff can handle what calls."

But if your call system is too problematic for internal resources to handle or identify, you might need the services of a consultant. "You might also have an outdated phone system," says Fred T. Brox, a practice management consultant at Damsey and Associates, Ltd. in Norfolk, Va. "Modern phone technology offers numerous solutions that give the patient control over the call. A menu message allowing the patient to connect directly with someone for prescription renewal, or to make or change an appointment, or to discuss a bill, surely beats listening to a busy signal or repeated ringing that goes unanswered."

What’s great about the menu message is that it quickly tells the caller they can press "O" to talk to the practice operator. "The practice operator will give control to those patients who do not wish to go through the menu of choices," says Brox. "Having voicemail which allows a calling patient to leave a voice message in his or her own words for a key person in the office, gives power back to the patient. He or she no longer has to be concerned that a key piece of information was not written down, or that the message was not delivered."

According to Fiore, their physician assistants are handling patient calls related to any diagnostic tests with normal findings. "If the PA can go through the call-back list, interpret it, reduce it and weed out all the things that the physician has to do, then it’s a more timely response for the patient and the physician can spent time handling more important calls," he says.

Adds Brox, "Some practices are giving patients access to computer data bases which allows them to schedule their own appointments, read or download medical information about the practice, and leave e-mails for key personnel."

"If your practice doesn’t take appropriate measures to alleviate communication problems, patients will take their business elsewhere and/or voice formal complaints with either their insurance carrier, your medical director and spread negative rumors about you," Fiore says. "And why risk that for the price of a returned call?"

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