By Sara Heath

– As patients increasingly demand convenient care access and a smoother care experience, healthcare organizations across the country are working to make their call centers and appointment scheduling processes more efficient.

At Heritage Medical Associates, a 150-member independent physician group in Tennessee, actually creating their call center was the first step.

“Our most significant call center challenge was that we didn’t have one,” Jessica Smith, chief administrator officer at HMA, said in an interview with “We are a group of about 150 physicians and most of whom have their own schedulers or share a scheduler at their location.”

That process, Smith outlined, was fragmented across different physician offices.

“Patients would call an individual provider to make an appointment and if that office wasn’t able to accommodate them we had kind of an informal person that was identified to take the call and see if they could think of somebody else that might be willing or interested in taking the patient,” Smith stated.

READ MORE: What Role Do Call Centers Play in Patient Communications?

This was an incredibly inefficient process that left about six patients each week needing to jump through hoops to schedule an appointment. This process put the onus almost entirely on the patient, a serious detriment to patient satisfaction.

“That system had two different impacts on the patient,” Smith said. “One was the process of making an appointment was labored, but the access was also compromised because patients would contact a physician that may be able to accommodate them in three months when there was another physician at that same location that maybe was available within the next month that would have been just as good of a fit.”

Those issues motivated HMA to begin its first call center iteration.

“When we first developed our call center, we had patient liaisons who would scan individual schedules within our practice management system,” Smith outlined. “They would rely on a website that we developed internally to find which physicians were open to accepting new patients. But provider availability was not visible within that tool, so liaisons had to use the practice management system to find an appointment.”

That process was also inefficient, leaving patient liaisons to toggle back and forth between schedules, provider directories, and appointment scheduling software.

READ MORE: Patient Care Access Must Go Beyond Online Appointment Scheduling

MHA decided to implement a centralized call center tool from MyHealthDirect which allowed patient liaisons to see the full scope of appointment slots and help patients find one that would work for their needs. Liaisons could schedule appointments directly from that platform.

Implementing a centralized appointment scheduling system across numerous physician practices did require some careful planning, Smith pointed out.

“Before we were even able to educate the call center employees about the technology, we had to meet individually with our physicians,” she said. “This helped us better understand the type of day that was manageable for them and also allow them to meet their patient demands.”

Smith and her team helped design a standardized daily schedule that would maximize the physician group’s revenue but also allow patients and providers to develop relationships and avoid physician burnout.

“Then we were able to more easily transition to the technology in a way that was invisible to the physician but maximize the efficiency of the call center staff,” Smith continued. “We piloted the program initially with one liaison and then we were able to refine the technology as well as workflows before expanding it to the entire group.”

READ MORE: Overcoming Challenges of Online Appointment Scheduling Adoption

This person-by-person implementation protocol was essential, Smith emphasized. Introducing an entirely new process for appointment scheduling was likely to yield liaison and provider pushback, staff confusion, and potentially system failure. By rolling it out with only a few staff members first, Smith and her team were able to iron out any issues that arose.

As a result of this centralized call center technology, HMA has seen maximized efficiency. While it once took call center staffers between six and 15 minutes to get an appointment booked, it now takes them an average of four minutes.

“Previously, our liaisons would spend time combing through individual schedules to find an available appointment,” Smith explained. “After implementing our call center technology, we found we were able to cut that down to more like four minutes. This allows liaisons to take more phone calls per hour, decreasing the time on hold for our patients to be scheduled.”

This not only creates a more convenient care access experience, but it ensures patients get an appointment with the right type of provider.

This has been good news for HMA’s physicians, as well.

“We’ve been better able to use the capacity in their day and give physicians a more structured and predictable day,” Smith noted. “Despite seeing more patients as a result of this initiative, this has left physicians feeling more in control and balanced in their daily experience.”

HMA’s appointment scheduling processes are call center only, Smith said, noting that the personal touch in the call center is what ensures patients match with the right physicians and the right appointment slots.

“At this point all of our appointments are booked via telephone,” she asserted. “There are a lot of solutions that make it difficult to have an experience that meets each need at each stage of the pipeline for a patient.”

“That’s also one of the reasons though why we have held back from doing online scheduling,” she continued. “We’re just not quite ready to make it all digital. The communicative approach that we take with a phone call ensures that we understand the patients’ needs and that they’re accommodated in a timeframe that is appropriate for the problem that they have.”

And while implementing and then updating HMA’s call center has been crucial to improving the patient experience, it has also had its financial returns. With a more efficient appointment scheduling process, providers can see more patients, generate more revenue, and keep up with other reimbursement demands.

“While it’s all about the patient experience, the business side of why we’ve done this important, too,” Smith concluded. “As reimbursement gets tighter, it demands that we are efficient in the resources that we provide to fill up the capacity that we have in our day.”

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