It’s often the simplest things that cause the worst headaches. Maybe this is because we expect big tasks to cause big problems and are therefore mentally prepared for them. Maybe it’s because when small things break, the cascade of subsequent issues is anything but small. Whatever the psychology, as a medical practice manager you know how difficult it can be to keep up with all of the daily minutiae of running a medical office even under the best of circumstances. You are always looking for ways to streamline back office operations, save money on equipment and services, and coordinate staff and providers, all while keeping a steady flow of happy patients moving through your doors.
One seemingly small area that encompasses all of these challenges is your inter-practice communications. First you have to ensure your team is on the same page. Then comes coordinating outside your practice with patients and hospital staff, directing their questions and concerns to the proper physician. Should be simple, but in reality hiccups are not uncommon.
You know the drill: a disgruntled physician calls after she was erroneously paged while on vacation. Or your on-call doctor failed to respond to a page because he never received it. Even worse, details in a patient’s complaint get scrambled en route to the on-call physician, leading to confusion and delays in care.
Medical answering services are supposed to help with these problems. However, you may still have to do a lot of manual work to keep up with scheduling changes and coordinating on-call duties among your providers. Without the right set of tools mistakes are inevitable, both from your office and from your answering service.
Fortunately, there are solutions to help busy group practices, including technology such as HIPAA-compliant communications and scheduling platforms. And medical answering services can play an invaluable role in helping you coordinate your practice’s communication.
While both classic medical answering services and newer on-call management platforms are designed to help simplify the business of healthcare so your team can stay organized and efficient, they are not created equal.
With that in mind, we have selected 14 critical points to consider when evaluating a medical answering service. The list below will help you more easily assess your unique needs and priorities against the capabilities of each provider.
1. Activation fees: Typical activation fees run between $0 to $150, depending on the provider and the complexity of your account. This fee covers the provider’s software setup and training.
2. Activation time: Ranging from a few hours to ten days, activation timelines include setting up your account and establishing your scripts and workflows. Although fast activation is important, it should not take precedence over ensuring that your answering service is well-prepared to field your calls, effectively represent your practice, and understand your unique workflows and scheduling.
3. Pricing & Contract Terms: Most providers offer similar pricing plans ranging from $300 to $550 per month for 500 minutes or 150 calls. Added call volumes can increase monthly pricing significantly, so be sure to inquire about volume tiers and their associated costs before signing up.
Although some providers are now offering month-to-month services, many still require long-term contracts. Make sure you are clear on contract terms and service level agreements, (SLAs), which define the terms of guaranteed service levels and support.
4. Customization Options: A reputable medical answering service should give you the ability to customize workflows to fit the unique needs of your practice. Customizations may include ‘round-robining’ inbound calls from patients or hospital staff to the on-call physicians, accommodating multi-location and cross-coverage models, increasing agent support during regular peak call volume times. Additionally, you should be able to easily implement last minute changes when necessary.
5. Availability: Agents should be available 24/7 to field inbound calls so your practice can offer stellar service to patients and hospital staff. Some providers have limited hours, while others add charges for 24/7 coverage. Be sure to understand all of the potential fees for the support your practice requires.
6. Bilingual and/or Multilingual Agents: Ask about language capabilities and associated costs for bilingual agents if your practice serves diverse patient populations, or if your practice may expand into new locations where languages other than English are common. Many medical answering services offer Spanish as an additional language.
It is important to note that having bilingual or multilingual medical answering service agents is different than selecting a provider that uses foreign workers, called “off-shore” or “near-shore” agents. While the providers’ profit margins are lucrative and give you lower pricing, beware. Language barriers and accents can frustrate patients, staff and physicians—once again potentially doing more harm than good.
7. Online Processing & Reporting: Be sure the provider allows you to log in securely to an online account where you can easily monitor account activity on demand. Metrics to track include call volume, billing activity and general analytics reports. While some medical answering services have an online portal, reporting capabilities and accessibility of activity data can vary widely. Therefore, take a look at a demo and/or real examples of the provider’s reporting capabilities before spending any money.
8. Responsiveness: In healthcare, conveying messages and updating schedules is time-sensitive. Many medical answering service agents take up to 20 to 30 minutes to relay messages to the appropriate on-call physician. With this in mind, check your SLA documents for timeline requirements so that longer delays do not negatively impact your patients or practice.
9. User Experience: It’s not uncommon for scripted medical answering service agents to sound cold and robotic. Needless to say, when dealing directly with patients regarding sensitive healthcare information, agents should convey a friendly approach and sound like a part of your in-house team.
10. Inbound Healthcare Scheduling: Any provider you select should have agents with experience 1) fielding inbound calls from patients, 2) scheduling medical appointments and 3) taking detailed messages related to healthcare issues. Although answering services for other industries may have experience fielding inbound calls, healthcare-related support is typically a better fit for group practices and requires less agent training.
11. HIPAA Compliance: There can be no discussion here. It is critical that the provider you select complies with all HIPAA regulations to keep your patient data safe, secure and confidential.
12. IT & Customer Support: As mentioned briefly above, ask about the provider’s service levels for your account. Topics to discuss include agent wait times, agent turnover rates, responsiveness to email correspondence for account administration, pricing and billing transparency and ad-hoc reporting requests.
13. Call Sound Quality: Listen to recordings of sample calls and test the system after your account is live to ensure that phone lines are clear and there’s no background noise. Many medical answering services are managed in large call centers, and background noise can be detrimental to clear communication when patients and staff call in.
14. Free Trial: Representing your practice is mission critical, so it’s important you have the option to test the quality of service before finalizing your decision. Ask about free trials. Some services offer them and some do not. Either way, know up front what you’re getting in to.
Questions about any of these topics (or one that we didn’t cover)? Get in touch today!