Chapter 13: The telephone – your clinic’s lifeline
|"Let your fingers do the walking. "
- American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T).
The one instrument doctors use more frequently than their stethoscope is the telephone ! While most doctors are expert at starting IV lines, they forget that the telephone is their clinic’s lifeline, and unfortunately, most have still not learnt to make the best use of the telephone. This is one of the most important tools in your clinical practise, but most doctors do not bother to ensure that their telephone system works properly . However, this carelessness can prove to be expensive - after all, if a patient cannot phone you, how will he be able to fix an appointment ?
Remember that your phone is often the first point of contact of your patients with your clinic – and it’s vital that you create a good first impression. To many patients, how your practice manages its telephone calls is an indication of how well your practice manages patient care , and patients tend to judge the efficiency of a practice by how well phone calls are answered. Patients who have difficulty making appointments, contacting a doctor or obtaining care for an urgent problem are more likely to change their doctor.
It is certainly an advantage if you can afford two or more lines. If one is engaged, a worried patient or relative can use the other, and the telephone will not sound constantly engaged if you use one line only for outgoing calls. Some clinics have a special number which they give out only to their existing patients, so that they can access the clinic easily.
A good way to assess your practices phone skills is to put yourself in your patients shoes and call your practice. Can a patient schedule an appointment easily? Are doctors readily accessible by phone? Are emergency calls processed quickly? Are other calls returned in a timely fashion? Can referring doctors get in touch with you easily ?
You can assess your practices phone skills by making test calls periodically.. How efficient is the receptionist in answering, screening and directing the calls of patients seeking appointments or demanding to speak to a doctor? Let your staff know that you plan to test the system periodically by making test calls, then meet with the staff after each test to discuss your findings.
Telephone systems have become more sophisticated and you should consider investing in the best one you can afford. Most doctors take a penny-pinching approach when buying a phone system – but this is short-sighted. There are many choices, including EPABXs, key-telephone system, and computer-based systems. Many allow you to play messages or music while the patient is on hold and these are useful , because they give the impression that your practise is professional, modern and well-organised. Others offer automated options, which can direct callers to the right person. However, do remember that no matter how sophisticated your machine, it’s only going to be as good as the people who actually answer the calls. Employ the best receptionist you can find – she can be worth her weight in gold ! Staff members who answer the phone should be trained to answer phones, so that they can do so efficiently. You need to teach them to sound caring and helpful. It’s useful to teach them a standard protocol for answering the phone – for example,” Good morning, this is Malpani Infertility Clinic and I am Ms Sunita. How can I help you ?” To provide better service over the phone, develop a list of the most frequently asked questions and their answers. All messages – both incoming and outgoing – should be logged in. This will help to ensure that your system works efficiently.
For smaller practises, simpler options like a recording machine are very valuable, so that patients or referring doctors can leave messages for you. You should also explore the newer telecommunication options, such as pagers and cellphones. Mobiles allow you to be "on-call” round the clock – but be careful to whom you give your number! Pagers are useful , because they allow you to screen calls, and return them at your convenience.
Many patients will insist on talking to the doctor every time they call. However, this is not an efficient use of your time, and you need to be able to screen calls. Administrative matters , such as fixing appointments should be handled by an assistant or a receptionist. Triage protocols can help practices manage calls for urgent, same-day or next-day appointments.
It’s a good idea to teach patients how to use the telephone well when do they call you. For example, tell them to : keep a pen and paper ready so that they can write down the relevant instructions; identify themselves properly, giving their full name as well as their diagnosis ; and to report specific symptoms. Let patients know when you are easily contactable for routine calls – and request them to call during this time.
Make it a point to return calls efficiently. It’s helpful to set aside 15 minutes a day, during which you can do this. Patients appreciate doctors who call them up – it’s a sign that you care for their well-being, and since it’s something which such few doctors do, your calls will stand out for their thoughtfulness. For example, it’s a good idea to call patients at their residence 24 hours after they have been discharged from hospital, to check that they have no complaints.
As technology advances, phone systems are going to become even more sophisticated, and you should be prepared to make use of this valuable tool . The simplest example is telemedicine, and videophones for teleconferencing may soon become commonplace – and call centers which offer patients pre-recorded health information are now popular in the West.
How your telephone is answered can make or mar the reputation of your practice and here are some guidelines to help you improve your telephone reception.
1. Have a standard printed form on which to put the name, address, telephone number and a brief outline of the patients problem. These are quite helpful, as it is possible to see at a glance the substance of the call.
2. Screening calls is a problem. You should not speak to a member of the family, another doctor or patient when you are in the middle of a consultation. The patient is paying for your time and attention, and will not like interruptions.
3. An emergency call must be dealt with as soon as possible. Establish what the problem is, and decide what you are going to do about it.
4. Train the receptionist or secretary to distinguish between urgent and non-urgent calls.
5. Leave your own calls, either personal or business, to a time set aside for the purpose.
6. You might want to "schedule” time for telephone consultations for complex problems. Many doctors in the US do this – and charge for it as well !
7. Have a script in front of every phone , telling the staff member how he or she should answer the phone. This facilitates positive phone manners – and also ensures your phone are answered consistently and pleasantly.
8. Tell your staff to smile and be enthusiastic while on the telephone. Place a mirror in front of every telephone - the smile can be heard on the other end of the line !
If you hate being put on hold or talking to rude telephone operators, imagine how much worse it must be for your ill patients when they try to get in touch with you ! Making effective use of the telephone can help to save both you and your patients considerable time, effort and money - learn to use it well !