Simulating Traffic Helps Hospital Address Contact Center Traffic

By Claire Cordeaux

A healthcare phone system can quite literally be a lifeline to the patients who need access to medical professionals. The challenge of any healthcare contact phone system is to identify the calls that need immediate attention and make those a priority. The ideal system would mark each call according to need, and – while ensuring a basic level of good customer service and care – deal with the calls in order of priority.

For the NHS24, which is part of the UK National Health System, getting this level of prioritization was essential to its survival. The 24-hour national health call center was launched to serve a population of five million people, but it quickly became overwhelmed with the needs of callers. How this health call center identified its problems and used business process analytics and simulation to garner a solution holds lessons for every hospital, healthcare line, medical services institution, and others that deal with phone calls concerning patient health and care.

What caused problems for this contact center was the added demand of general physicians’ forwarding their phones to the general contact center after hours. At peak times, the service was handling in excess of 14,000 calls per day. This demand outweighed the metrics that had led to the contact center’s design, resulting in low patient service and accompanying criticism in the public sector and among the press.

Of issue was the callback procedure that was designed for a much lower call volume. The procedure for an urgent call was to have a handler pass it on to emergency services, ambulatory services, or to an internal nurse advisor. If a nurse was not immediately available, arrangements were made to have the nurse call the patient back within a set time, with the order of callbacks determined by the need of the patient.

With the extra volume of callers, the callback system was experiencing delays of up to an hour, which was unacceptable for both the patients and the healthcare staff. The staff undertook a simulated analysis to improve the overall contact center’s efficiency, but they started by focusing on the callback program.

The simulation was able to take the regular flow of calls to the center and place them in a context that included all of the resources that are used, as well as the time it takes to complete the various functions that make up the call center’s processes. One of the main benefits of a simulation is the ability to run “what if” scenarios. These scenarios lead to the breakthroughs in understanding that enable organizations to optimize their resources.

Specifically, in the case of the contact center, the simulation allowed the staff to identify what resources were needed at all stages of the callback process. From here, the staff was able to quantify the most appropriate resource and skills mix that was involved in the callback procedure and also identify demand throughout the process. This resulted in the creation of new local hubs to meet the high demands at peak periods and changes in shift patterns and staffing. Through this exercise, the staff was able to find other solutions for certain types of calls, taking these types of inquiries out of the callback process.

Claire Cordeaux is the health and social care vertical lead at SIMUL8 Corporation. In this capacity, Claire works with clients in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in languages from the University of Bristol.

[From the April/May 2012 issue of AnswerStat magazine]