By Sue Altman-Riffel
Healthcare contact centers have acted as the communication and wayfinding hub between their sponsoring organizations and the audiences they serve. In the 1980s, when I started my first hospital call center, there was really just one channel for quick communication: the telephone. It was a landline.
We didn’t give much thought to our audiences’ preferred communication methods back then. The only option of note was whether someone wished to be contacted on his or her home phone or work phone. Later came car phones and cellular phones, more possible options to be considered when collecting callers’ phone numbers.
The typical contact center users: patients, parents, plan members, and prospective community members have not changed much through the years, but their communication options have expanded.
Internet availability brought about health organization websites. The primary advantages of the website are 24/7 availability and no waiting on hold, allowing its audience to quickly find information, download forms, browse physicians and facilities. and register for programs and services, whether a call center was available or not. Contact centers (note the change from call center to contact center) continue to add support to a variety of website functions behind the scenes, but a growing list of transactions can be concluded without human support.
Websites continue to be an extremely important digital platform for healthcare today. Studies show that the user’s viewing device (for websites) can change throughout the day: a smartphone in the morning and while the user is commuting or at lunch, desktop use picks up during the workday and tablet use increases in the evening. But for the last ten years, the communication medium that has outpaced all others is the smartphone.
We Love Our Smartphones: Since the smartphone was launched, we humans have fallen in love with its convenience and offerings. We each have our favorite apps. They entertain, keep us connected, act as a platform for sharing our views, provide us with answers, and support telephone and video communication.
In the US, the average adult spends eighty-seven hours per month on their mobile devices, mainly smartphones. We keep them nearby, often in a pocket or purse. Studies show that 75 percent of smartphone users take their phones to bed with them. (I want to smirk at this, but I remember using my white noise app to fall asleep last time I traveled.) Clearly, we’ve incorporated smartphones into nearly all aspects of our lives, including managing our (and our family members’) health.
Each year, more functionality is integrated into smartphones (effectively hand-held mini-computers). The list of functions will look familiar. At present, hospital apps support many do-it-yourself (DIY) services, such as:
- Locate facilities, with mapping and directions
- Find physicians: search based upon specialty, insurance, location, language
- Check symptom acuity, with self-care advice and connection to care locations
- Connect to a triage nurse or telemedicine provider
- Browse health information libraries
- Look-up dosages; track medications
- Login to patient portals
- Engage in social media
- Pay bills
- Sign up for a class or event
- Get reminders, encouragement, and education via push notifications
One of the many advantages offered by mobile is one-tap connections to the next services needed. A symptom check is one tap away from calling one’s doctor, finding an open urgent care (with map), scheduling (online or agent–assisted), or connecting to a triage nurse or telemedicine provider.
Have Mobile Apps Replaced Talking to a Real Person? No. Although mobile is becoming the organization’s digital front door, it is not the sole communication vehicle. The choice between mobile versus live–voice is influenced by your audience, the service required, and its complexity.
Audience and Age: First, audience adoption of apps differs by age group. Pew Research regularly studies the adoption of technology by population. In 2015, they found that 77 percent of the eighteen to twenty-nine age group has used their smartphone to seek information about a health condition, compared to slightly fewer (68 percent) of 30-49 year olds.
They also explored the shrinking segment of non-users (13 percent for websites; 20+ percent for smartphones). The shared characteristics are highlighted as age 65+, income below the poverty level, low education (high school or less), and rural. If this describes a portion of your audience, then telephone services will continue to be the main medium for supporting them.
General Movement Away From the Telephone: Recent Forrester research “Your Customers Don’t Want To Call You For Support” tells us adults in the US prefer using web or mobile self-service more than speaking with an agent over the phone. This use increased from 67 percent in 2012 to 81 percent in 2015 among US online adults.
Although calling customer service has steadily decreased over the past six years, it is still used for escalation. Customers prefer to resolve straightforward interactions using self–service (web and mobile), but still reserve complex issues for a telephone call.
For 10 plus years, contact centers have seen the volume of inbound calls decline—especially in the age group of 18-35 years. Creating a mobile app to engage this audience is a way of keeping their loyalty by respecting their self-service preference. They will connect by telephone when their health needs escalate or exceed self-service.
Applying this to healthcare contact centers, communication preferences are situational. One example is symptom checking (described as self-triage). Young parents may use an app or website to check their child’s symptoms. It will help them understand what action is appropriate: ER, office visit ,or manage at home for now, and offer step-by-step advice for managing symptoms.
But what if the parent has additional questions? A great solution is offering the symptom-checker user an option (within the app) to connect to a triage nurse or request a call back. In many instances, self-service may satisfy users’ needs. But self-service can escalate to a nurse if the situation turns out to be more complex.
Scheduling: Not all desired services can be completed quickly via mobile. Appointment requests are still largely facilitated through voice–to–voice communication. In many cases,
- the office (or hospital department) needs more information about the patient than can easily be completed using a web or mobile form, or
- the back and forth of choosing an appointment time that suits both schedules can be done faster via telephone.
There are exceptions. Many health systems are piloting self-scheduling for certain types of appointments through their patient portal or through apps such as ZocDoc. It appeals to the self-service enthusiasts and rates highly for fulfillment of instant-gettification.
Mobile apps can be a conduit for connecting the user to your organization for appointments. Placing a “request appointment” button (within the symptom checker or the physician finder) in logical areas can funnel new patients to your scheduling center.
Mobile is Another Channel: At its simplest, mobile represents another change. Since the first healthcare call centers, there have been cycles of invention and change:
- pilot a service based upon a health system objective or unmet audience need
- fine-tune the process to reduce variation
- make it more efficient using software or automation
- reinvest any time saved into growth or starting another service
Communication and wayfinding services will continue to be multi-channel: telephone, video, website, patient portal, and mobile applications. As the mobile experience is demanded by a growing audience, more services will be supported by it. It will interface with additional software and applications, putting more self-service at your audience’s fingertips.
Mobile may connect your organization with a new set of customers: the 18-29 age group who only use their smartphone to place a call as a last resort.
There is an opportunity to leverage mobile to off-load low challenge or low acuity calls. This creates the chance to take on additional business, improve service levels, or shift staff to support new opportunities. Mobile is just another cycle of (re)invention and change.
Sue Altman-Riffel worked as a manager and consultant in the telehealth industry for 28 years. She currently serves as the CEO for two digital companies: Self Care Decisions and AppCatalyst, which support more than 200 healthcare organizations with self-triage and mobile application design and development.