I recently sat on hold for 10 minutes to talk to a nurse about my mom's care. While waiting, I was struck by the healthcare IT paradox -- that an industry capable of creating bionic limbs controlled by thoughts is the same industry that fails to use good call center technology.
My call was "answered" by a message saying all phone lines were busy and my call would be answered in the order it was received. This typical response is fairly standard whether I call the electric company, my bank, or an appliance store. But in this scenario, I expect more because healthcare is an industry that is managing the complexity of human illness.
What ensued is familiar to all of us: The endless loop of Muzak, followed by a click and the reminder that I was still on hold. My hopes were raised and promptly dashed when I realized the ringing that interrupted the music was not answered by a human, just re-directed back into the seemingly endless holding pattern. The process is, at the least, disruptive because it prevents me from concentrating fully on anything else. At the most, this kind of service might cause patients unable to take time out of their day to not relay important information to their doctors.
[Is your organization patient-centered enough? Read Hospitals Elevate Patient Satisfaction To The C-Suite.]
Failing to improve the initial contact a healthcare organization has with a patient or family member increases frustration, decreases trust, and introduces unnecessary anxiety, all before human interaction occurs. Unfortunately, this is a too-common scenario -- and a missed opportunity to create a good patient experience.
My cable company provides better call service than my mom's world-class Magnet-designated health system. Surprised? After thinking about my experience on hold, I came up with three reasons why this is. The good news is we can cross apply these strategies.
1. Manage expectations.
When I am on hold with the cable company, it gives me an estimated wait time. If I need to be on hold, especially for an extended time, I want to know how long it will last. Everyone appreciates being kept in the loop, particularly when communicating health needs. Technology can help with this in many ways. For example, I think about the morphine pump my mom had and how it would allow an increased dose only when the green light came on. This subtle yet clear way of communicating made the difference in my mom's ability to cope with extreme post-surgery discomfort.
2. Eliminate unnecessary interruptions.
In healthcare, interruptions seem to be the rule, not the exception. Sometimes interruptions occur for good reasons -- timeouts and hard stops can alert us to safety concerns. But who needs the constant reminder they are still on hold?
Interruptions are plentiful for patients, particularly for patients like my mom who spend time in an acute inpatient unit. The sheer number of dings and beeps in a patient's room supersede what can possibly be considered urgent or important reflections of a patient's needs. Instead, they initially lead to patient anxiety and then at some point just become a customary soundtrack to the cacophony that is expected in hospitals across the country. There must be a more effective and subtle way for technology to alert caregivers to a patient's needs, while supporting the patient's rest and recovery.
3. Customize the experience.
The cable company understands the concept of allowing the customer to choose their own "adventure." Like the hold music? Great, stay on the line. Have other things to do? Great, we'll call you back so you don't have to wait. One of the biggest but not insurmountable challenges in healthcare is customization. Providing the option to hold or not to hold might seem insignificant, but when health itself offers so little choice, it is important to provide options at every possible opportunity.
Technology has the potential to increase these opportunities. If we must have the beeping, shouldn't we at least be able to decide the tone? Think about how we customize our cellphone ringtones -- why not allow those types of options for patients? There are already great advances in this area. I love that I can communicate directly with my mom's providers via her patient portal. I can ask questions at any time, without needing to wait on hold. This is particularly helpful given the time zone difference that lies between me and her care team.
There is a lot we can learn from other industries. By making small changes, we can make big differences in the patient experience. Healthcare is the most important customer service-based industry because it touches people at the most vulnerable times of their lives. This should be our motivation to ensure the work we do and the decisions we make -- often far away from where care is delivered -- truly make a difference to patients' lives. That's not something we can afford to hold for.
Healthcare providers must look beyond Meaningful Use regulations and start asking: Is my site as useful as Amazon? Also in the Patient Engagement issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: IT executives need to stay well informed about the strengths and limitations of comparative effectiveness research. (Free registration required.)