Is your organization’s patient contact center struggling with inefficiencies and high costs? You’re not alone. Many clinicians find that traditional healthcare call centers no longer provide the best customer service or value. Luckily, several strategic alternatives are available that can help you improve your patients’ experience while reducing costs.

In this post, we’ll explore these efficient and cost-effective options and how they can benefit both your business and your patients. But, first, let’s look at how call centers impact healthcare providers like you.

The Role of Healthcare Call Centers

Americans are highly reliant on the traditional healthcare call center system. Yet, oddly enough, the term “healthcare call center” has no standard definition. However, we can all agree that its primary function is to provide direct voice-to-voice communications with patients to schedule appointments with a provider. 

Additional roles include patient engagement, patient access, or answering service as a rudimentary application. Some call centers are centralized; others are decentralized or outsourced (partially or entirely). 

Because of the wide variety of functional capabilities among call centers, healthcare executives traditionally have viewed such services as a necessary “non-strategic” cost of doing business.

Trying to Keep Up

The advent of the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) – coupled with the complex variations in health plans, provider credentialing, pre-authorization, deductibles/co-pays – has exponentially increased the importance of effective patient care communications and a fully functioning call center. 

The continuing trend of healthcare organizations emphasizing ambulatory services and expanding the geographic footprint also creates a whole new set of logistical problems in handling inbound calls. 

Despite these increased demands and complexities, healthcare executive management struggles with general misconceptions and misunderstandings about the inefficiencies and underutilization of resources and technology within their in-house call center. This realization generally comes after complaints from patients and providers pile up.

Given the growth in healthcare options, patients are becoming consumers of care rather than simply recipients. Consumers are better educated, more informed and have increasingly higher expectations.

Healthcare system ambulatory strategy, Healthcare Facilities Today, blog, November 24, 2019

Getting the Picture

It helps to understand the nature of inbound and outbound services offered by traditional healthcare call centers to get a clear picture of how they operate.

Inbound services can include as many features, for example: 

While outbound services generally include:

Healthcare Call Center Performance Metrics
Performance metrics are a means of measuring call volume, peak period staffing requirements, and productivity (transaction time). The most effective way to manage performance metrics is the “interval report,” which is an integral part of a call center’s technology platform. (Automated Call Distribution or ACD)

The Cost of Managing an In-house Call Center

In a survey conducted by the Healthcare Call Center Times, the future of the healthcare call center profession continued to show strong growth. 

According to the study, 66% of respondents believed that the call center would become more critical to their organization over the next two years. In addition, another indicator suggested that call center staff levels would increase over the same period. Over 40% of the respondents indicated their budgets would also increase, with an average turnover rate for non-clinical call center staff of about 18%.

However, when operating and maintaining a centralized call center, it’s essential to note cost is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to salary, benefits, technology investments, and facility costs, there are still other crucial elements to an effective operation.

Abandonment rate, response time, agent utilization, no-show rates, and provider productivity all directly impact the net patient revenue to the organization, which can significantly alter the value proposition of an in-house call center.

How the Covid Crisis Changed the Healthcare Call Center

The early impact of Covid-19 on the healthcare industry resulted in high levels of absenteeism within centralized in-house call centers even before the shut down of routine care, elective procedures, and surgeries.

Call volumes increased during the first few weeks because patients wanted to schedule, cancel, or re-schedule visits. Although the call volume increase was short-lived, it exposed a systemic flaw in handling a crisis. Thinking of it another way, any natural or human-made disaster might have a similar cause and effect.

As providers reevaluate lines of business that are core to their values and financial viability in the wake of Covid-19, they should also consider cost-effective ways of permanently reducing overhead in non-clinical support operations.

Shifting in-house call center staff to a work-at-home model was deemed far more complicated than initially thought. And as call volume decreased, healthcare call centers seemed a less viable alternative. 

Organizations who partnered with answering services for after-hour and overflow calls also found the option ineffective because most answer-only service vendors have no access to the EMR or scheduling systems.

The Post Pandemic Challenges Healthcare Call Centers Are Facing

Now that healthcare providers have returned to offering their full range of services, what have we learned from operating during the pandemic, and what changes should we consider to mitigate unnecessary risks and operating expenses going forward? 

During the Covid crisis, every healthcare provider organization experienced a negative financial impact on its bottom line. Cash reserves were depleted in the short term to offset lost revenue. At the same time, staff layoffs and absenteeism had a residual consequence on handling the demand to schedule procedures. 

An ongoing challenge for in-house healthcare call centers is recruiting and retaining adequate staffing levels. And as providers reevaluate lines of business relevant to their core values and financial viability, they must consider cost-effective solutions to reduce overhead in non-clinical support operations.

Abandon rates of between 5 and 8 percent are considered normal. However, based on time of day and industry, rates can reach as high as 20 percent. A high abandon rate can negatively impact customer satisfaction and reduce customer retention rates. It’s important to monitor this metric closely so it doesn’t exceed the target threshold.

Call Abandon Rate, Klipfolio Metric HQ, updated February 14, 2020

Once the total recurring cost is fully understood, restructuring, downsizing, or eliminating the traditional in-house call center model (centralized or decentralized) is a logical consideration. However, we should also consider replacing in-house call operations with a more economical alternative. 

An in-house healthcare call center requires agents, space for workstations, technology, and perpetual maintenance for the Automated Call Distribution (ACD). In addition, with the average 18% turnover rate coupled with a shortage of qualified resources in many geographic markets, there is also a recurring cost for recruiting and training new agents.

Average In-House Healthcare Call Center Costs

Let’s Review Your Options

Despite the challenges outlined above, there are viable alternatives to the old-fashioned in-house call center your healthcare institution should consider. 

  1. A hybrid model utilizes a downsized in-house call center, augmented by an outsourcing solution to handle peak capacity call volume or overflow. This model may also include after-hours and weekend full-service scheduling capabilities to meet the demands of your patients who typically work during regular call center hours. 
  2. A patient communications solution operates remotely, taking calls and performing other front-end services.
  3. An all-inclusive, virtual patient scheduling and communications solution offers complete front-end patient communication management and utilizes independent agents specifically assigned to a provider organization with full access to its EMR and scheduling algorithms.

Virtual patient communication centers are an excellent solution to saving on the cost of in-house workstations. American Health Connection, for example, offers many benefits that are vital for healthcare providers.

Virtual Patience Communications vs. Traditional Healthcare Call Center

Implementing a Positive Change

The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the industry that providers continue to face. And the Covid-19 crisis has made it abundantly clear that healthcare executives need to look carefully at their call center operations. Is it a drain on your budget and patient retention or a cost-saving, enhanced revenue source? 

As we’ve seen, there are several reasons why outsourcing your call center operations may be the right decision for your organization. Implementing a change in your patient communications structure could positively impact your success. 

American Health Connection offers the healthcare industry’s only all-inclusive, full-service, virtual central scheduling, and patient communication services. Our state-of-the-art technology and Patient Communication Management® system encompass a suite of customizable services that seamlessly streamlines all aspects of the patient engagement process. Plus, all of our agents are based here in the U.S.

These cost-effective and comprehensive solutions are designed to improve patient and physician satisfaction and significantly enhance scheduling and registration workflow.