Does the voice on the phone represent your practice?

When patients call your office, they may not be feeling well, may be concerned about a possible medical problem or may be upset about an upcoming procedure.

In short, they are calling you about an issue that is extremely important to them – and they want to know that you, their physician, care.

If they are met with a curt, insensitive reply, placed immediately on hold or, in general, treated like no one cares about them or their concerns, it reflects poorly not only on your office staff but on your practice as a whole.

Have you telephoned your practice recently to see how your front desk handles incoming calls? If not, ask a family member or volunteer to call the practice from time to time – and let your staff know that their patient-contact demeanor is being monitored. Discuss needed changes with staff members afterward.

If you have an automated system or voicemail, check to see that the system is simple to follow, does not frustrate callers, and gets patients the information they need as quickly as possible. Make regular improvements to the system.

In most practices, front office staff is dealing with patients in the waiting room as well as on the telephone. Are the patients calling in consistently being put on hold? Are medical assistants constantly distracted by patients in the office while they are on the phone? Perhaps your office is understaffed.

Set ground rules for how patient calls should be handled. Discuss how situations should be handled when an assistant has one patient on the phone and another in the office. Develop scripts for answering the phone and answering frequently asked questions.

Be sure to have a backup system for times when staff members become overwhelmed. If possible, keep phone lines open during times when patients are most available to call – during lunch and before and after work. Some offices recommend in their printed materials for patients to make nonemergency appointments during specific hours of the day when the office is less busy.

Today many practices are adding the option of making appointments online, as well as offering other information on the practice’s website that may have traditionally been handled by phone in the past. Would enhancing your website and online capabilities take the pressure off of your front office staff?

In general, when answering patient calls, medical assistants should:            

  • Try to answer quickly, within three rings if possible.
  • Answer in a friendly tone with the name of the practice and the employee’s first name.
  • Be pleasant and calm throughout the conversation.
  • Avoid speaking too quickly. Remember that patients know less about medical terms, insurance and medications than you do.
  • Listen carefully and with care, focusing on the patient.
  • Show interest. Try to use the patient’s name during the conversation.
  • Answer questions thoroughly, and be sure the information you take is accurate.
  • Speak only to the caller, not to other patients or personnel.
  • Try not to interrupt.
  • If you must place a caller on hold, ask permission. Try not to leave the patient on hold long.
  • Maintain patient confidentiality during the discussion.
  • Thank the patient for calling.

Remember, patients have options. A voice on the telephone may be a patient’s first, and possibly only, contact with your office. Be sure that voice is representative of your practice.