One of the biggest flaws with the telephone system in many doctor's offices is that human beings — with limited time and attention — are often involved when they don’t need to be. They spend too much time triaging calls and scribbling down messages. And when humans really do need to be involved, they’re busy, much to the frustration of patients calling the typical doctor’s office.
Here’s one solution to the problem: create an automated voicemail system for non-urgent messages from patients. These messages might include simple questions, requests for laboratory results, requests for refills, non-urgent clarifications, or any communication that isn’t urgent and doesn’t obviously require an office visit. The principle of productivity being followed here is filtering: any information that doesn't need to be dealt with immediately should be filed until later when it can be given the attention it deserves. Filtering non-urgent messages with a voicemail system frees up the phone lines and the time of the secretarial staff for matters that truly require their immediate attention.
Many doctor's offices already have an automated phone message that greets callers. The script for a typical system often sounds like this:
If this is a doctor's office or hospital or an urgent medical matter, press "1"...In this system, certain non-urgent messages (options "2" and 3") will be filtered to voicemail, but other non-urgent messages for the physician will still require the attention of the secretarial staff.
If you need refill authorization from the pharmacy, press "2"...
If you'd like to discuss test results, press "3"...
If you need to speak with a receptionist, press "4" or stay on the line...
A quick fix might be to add an extra option those non-urgent messages. Here's an example:
If this is a non-urgent message for the doctor that does not not need an immediate response, please press "5" to access the voicemail system.If you don't have the ability to customize your voicemail system, there are many other free or inexpensive options available online. Services like Google's Grand Central and CommuniKate [Addendum: Apparently you need a promo code for CommuniKate now, I found one here] offer a dedicated number for voicemail messages that can be provided to patients. ("For any non-urgent messages, please call this number.") Google's Grand Central is free but has temporarily stopped accepting new applications, and CommuniKate costs approximately $30 a month. (I've used both.) Using a separate voicemail number that you provide to patients also gives you the option of testing it out to see if it works before changing your current system.
For years, I've offered patients a separate voicemail number for non-urgent calls, and it's worked very well. Here's a sample voicemail message:
You’ve reached the voicemail of Dr Roberts. If this is a medical emergency, please hang up and dial 911. If you must reach me immediately, please speak with the office at 212-555-5555 and have me paged. I check this voicemail daily and usually return calls within 2 business days. Please leave a non-urgent message here. Thank you.The key to this system is to listen to the voicemail messages every business day, and return as many messages as possible daily. Services like Grand Central and CommuniKate make this process easier by offering visual voicemail: you can see a complete list of your messages and even listen to them online. If you work with a physician extender or PA, you can also have them prescreen your messages and answer those that don't require your personal attention.
There are several arguments against this system. The first is that it requires that patients exercise their judgment about what messages are urgent. In my experience, the number of truly urgent messages that patients leave on voicemail systems is very small, especially if your voicemail greeting is clear about what messages are appropriate and what messages aren't.
Another argument is that, "When people call they expect to speak to a doctor, not a machine" — except in practice, many patients don't. If the system works reliably, and messages are returned in a timely manner, most patients are perfectly content to leave voicemail messages. In many cases, it's actually quicker for them, too.
Of course, as with all the writing in this blog, these are only useful experiments and suggestions that have the potential to make a measurable difference in your practice. They are are provided for informational purposes only. Use your judgment when applying them to your own practice. If this system works for you, please feel free to email me or post a comment. Of course, if you think that there's a major problem with this approach, please also leave a comment or email me. And if you've tried other free or inexpensive online voicemail systems, let me know. I'd be happy to amend the post with additional information.