By Joseph Jarnutowski
In no other industry is efficient and accurate communications more important than in healthcare. Making sure the right personnel are contacted at the right time and in the right manner can literally be the difference between life and death. Today, healthcare organizations are increasingly challenged to increase patient safety, address physician satisfaction, and satisfy a highly mobile workforce with secure, streamlined communications. Faced with tight budgetary constraints, many healthcare providers are turning towards innovative and cost-effective call processing technologies to address their communications challenges. On a smaller scale, succinct, reliable, and efficient communications can shave minutes off hold times, eliminate frustration, and improve the overall experience for patients, staff, physicians, and operators alike. On a larger scale, efficient communications can save lives, diffuse emergencies, and reduce costly errors.
The Challenges: The benefits of adopting a communications solution begin at the operator’s desk. Currently, hospital operators manage a variety of tasks that range from managing internal and external calls, to updating on-call schedules, to alerting key staff in times of emergency. In an average situation, the operator utilizes a combination of resources to correctly route each incoming call. This can include a PC with access to a homegrown directory, paper on-call schedules, procedure binders, and printed emergency processes and information. If not properly managed, this disparate set of duties and unwieldy amount of information quickly results in a chaotic operator environment, which then leads to wasted time and compromised communications. The results are longer hold times, increased customer frustration, and diminished attention paid to callers who need assistance that is more involved.
Further complicating matters is the inability for many hospitals to update directory and on-call information in real-time. Directory data and on-call schedules are often inaccurate, primarily due to the lengthy manual process used to update this information. Relying on several individuals to update contact information, employee status, and on-call schedules for each department creates a delay in getting the correct information to the operators. Ultimately, caller and staff aggravation is increased due to incorrect paging and call forwarding.
Finally, and more importantly than the obvious problems of wasted time and caller and employee frustration, is the issue of safety. As operators are increasingly responsible for monitoring facility alarms and launching emergency procedures, it is imperative that the emergency procedure information is correct and easily accessible. In the majority of cases, operators engage in a timely process of looking up procedures in one of many available binders or posted notes. They must then manually launch the proper procedure, often dialing multiple extensions or sending a host of individual pages. This process is not only tedious and time consuming, but leaves a great deal of room for error.
The Solution: Luckily, in response to the critical need for enhanced communications, healthcare organizations can look to a proven and reliable technology designed to improve communications at the operators’ stations – the PC-based console. Designed to automate operator tasks, PC-based consoles integrate caller and directory information in one robust PC-based application and enhance operator performance through screen-based interactive functions. This streamlined approach to call handling eliminates the need for continually updated extension lists, printed on-call schedules, and cumbersome binders filled with emergency procedures and additional critical hospital information. Ultimately, operator productivity and accuracy is increased while staffing, printing, data entry, and overall costs are reduced.
Also, because it is network based and typically on a local area network (LAN), a PC-based console solution is easily integrated into the existing telephone platform and can access information across the network from a single database. This allows operators to quickly retrieve a variety of information in order to handle multiple calls as efficiently as possible. The flexible features of PC-based console communications systems can be programmed to perform a large range of useful call-handling tasks. Especially in large organizations and in situations where operators are answering numerous lines for different groups or departments, a PC-based console solution can vastly improve the way healthcare organizations handle their communications.
What to Consider: Several companies currently offer a PC-based console. When choosing one for your facility, it is important to consider which features will translate to optimum call handling specifically in a healthcare environment. Below is a list of key features to consider and the benefits they provide.
Call Pop-Up Screens: One of the most useful features of the PC-based console is the call pop-up screen, which helps expedite call handling by automatically “popping” relevant information or instructions based on incoming call identification. For example, the console can automatically present specific directories based on the characteristics of incoming calls, allowing the operator to quickly navigate the proper directories and route the call appropriately. Additionally, the console can present relevant information about the client for whom the call is intended, such as their status or schedule, and it can provide the option to record a message or schedule an appointment.
Perhaps the most important feature to the healthcare industry, call pops can also be extremely useful in handling emergency calls. For general emergency calls, the console can bring up a menu of pre-defined emergencies from which the operator can easily select the appropriate destination for the call. This can include overhead or pocket paging with automatic voice or text messages or immediate call transfer to the closest available emergency responders. On the other hand, if the call comes in on a line designated for a specific type of emergency, it can be immediately transferred to the appropriate parties. Emergency call pops can also be enhanced to include features such as on-screen instructions and color-coded directories to help ensure that operators are able to handle the calls as quickly and accurately as possible.
Call Distribution Groups: Call distribution ensures customers are handled in the most efficient and accurate way possible by allowing operators to be divided into groups based on certain areas and levels of expertise. This ensures that incoming calls are routed directly to someone who can most effectively handle them. For example, operators can be placed in different distribution groups based on their level of experience so that simple transactions can be directed toward newer employees, while the more complex transactions are routed to senior staff or managers. In large organizations implementing a console system, distribution groups can be set up to handle calls based on the departmental structure of the organization, allowing certain types of calls to be automatically routed to specific operators with the relevant knowledge to assist the caller. Call distribution groups can also be used internally to ensure that certain groups or individuals, such as physicians, always have a priority line open for immediate access to an operator.
Pre-Recorded Greetings: Pre-recorded greetings are an ideal feature for busy call centers or for operator staff that work long hours. The pre-recorded greeting functions as a voice saving feature that enables the operator to answer incoming calls with a variety of pre-recorded messages. This not only saves operators from having to repeat themselves hundreds of times per day, it also ensures that the phone will be answered in a consistent, professional manner regardless of the operator’s state of mind. Furthermore, because it can support numerous messages and be programmed to answer different lines with different messages, it can prevent operators responsible for multiple lines from making mistakes, which will reduce operator stress. Additionally, in busy call centers where operators work in close proximity to one another, voice-saver messages can provide a significant reduction in the overall noise level, reduce anxiety, and create a calm, quiet environment which is most conducive to optimum call handling.
One-Button Functionality: One-button functionality simply means that an operator can perform a task by pushing a single button on the keyboard. It is a significant time saving feature that results in operators being able to manage more calls in less time. In the best scenario, certain keys are pre-programmed for highly used functions, and the customer is able to customize additional keys to meet their specific needs. This functionality expedites the manner in which operators are able to access directory information, transfer calls, launch pages, and launch emergency procedures. Once a call is answered, the PC-based console application allows the operator to easily navigate through the application in order to assist the caller as quickly as possible. In a standard healthcare environment, pre-programmed one-button functionality applies to the following tasks:
- Paging: The critical task of paging is significantly simplified using one-button functionality. Rather than having to dial a pager number, operators are able to use one button to launch a page to an individual, group, or team. To further expedite this process, the PC-based console can offer paging masks with pre-filled standard messages. This further reduces the time it takes to launch a page by eliminating the need to type a message.
- Incoming call park and retrieve functionality: Incoming call park and retrieve functionality ensures that any operator can confidently process calls on hold. When a call is answered, the operator is able to quickly enter key information on a paging template. Once the information is entered, the caller is put on hold and the intended recipient of the call is automatically paged. When the paged party calls back, the call can easily be connected by any operator. This can be done even more efficiently with a one-button function “Meet Me” paging function in which the paged party is assigned a call-back number that will connect him directly with the caller.
- Messaging: Using a single keystroke, operators are able to choose one of a series of pre-defined messages and send it to the proper recipient. Message templates may be designed to require that the operator enter specific information based on a department’s needs. This ensures that messages always contain the critical information necessary for physicians and staff.
- On-call schedule access: Operator access to accurate on-call schedules directly impacts patient safety and physician satisfaction. With on-call communications being critical in a hospital environment, efficiency and accuracy cannot be compromised. One-button access to up-to-date on-call schedules expedites physician contact and response.
- Emergency processing: Immediate action during an emergency is critical in any environment. A preferred PC-based console will supply operators with one-button access to pre-defined emergency lists, proper procedures for each emergency, and immediate paging and auto-dialing to pre-defined emergency teams.
Directory Updates: The accuracy of the data a PC-based console accesses directly affects the benefits it can deliver. To ensure patient, physician, and staff contact information is up-to-date and to reap the time-saving benefits of eliminating duplicated efforts, PC-based consoles must integrate with patient and HR directories. Ideally, this integration will deliver real-time updates to your directory. In this way, the accuracy of directory information is increased as the updating process is automated and streamlined.
Reporting: Having access to a large selection of reports ensures that an organization can gauge everything from the effectiveness of their PC-based console to the exact date and time a physician was paged. In an industry where legal disputes can damage the reputation of a hospital or result in malpractice suits, having transaction reports and logging all actions performed though a PC-based console provides definitive accountability and ensures the organization is protected in times of dispute.
Enterprise/Multi-site: The final consideration in choosing a PC-based console is ensuring that it has enterprise capabilities. With the increased frequency of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships, healthcare organizations are increasingly suffering the loss of a significant investment when their technology does not match that of its new partners. Adopting a flexible solution with enterprise capabilities helps guard against this concern and allows for a unified solution across diverse technology platforms.
Conclusion: In an industry where efficient and accurate communications are critical, proven communications technologies are an affordable way to address communications challenges. By adopting PC-based console technology, your organization can start realizing the benefits of streamlined communications starting at the operators’ stations. Benefits realized by incorporating PC-based console technology include:
- Increased patient safety due to improved accuracy of communications
- Increased operator efficiency, responsiveness, and productivity
- Higher accuracy of call transfers, paging, and message delivery
- Increased efficiency of launching emergency procedures
- Reduced hold times for external callers
- Fewer hang-ups because long on hold times are reduced
- Enhanced customer service due to lower call volumes for each operator
- Friendly, consistent call handling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
The ultimate payoff of these improvements comes with creating a dramatically improved patient experience, improving overall hospital safety, and creating a more pleasant, efficient, and productive work environment for employees.
Joseph Jarnutowski is President and CEO of SDC Solutions, Inc. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[From the April/May 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]