Is It Time To Automate Your Medical Answering Service?

November 7th, 2008

When you run a physician’s practice, it is critical to have an answering service. The problem is finding one that is both affordable and reliable. When I left residency and turned in my hospital pager for the last time, I was happy almost to the point of tears. I had just endured three years of hammer-pages, three years of 2 AM pages about “dangerous” lab values like a BUN of 4 (yes, the concern was that it was too low!), and three years of constantly changing the ring style so that I did not get physically ill every time I heard a familiar chirp. Leaving that pager was a truly happy day.

Then I began work in a medium-sized practice. I still had call, though it was nothing like residency. Now it seemed that the medical answering service was my new nurse’s station. I would get all sorts of call. While they were not BUN levels (thankfully) they were never properly triaged and they did not always arrive in a timely fashion. Some emergent calls could have been handling more quickly while some routine calls could have been deflected.

When I could finally afford to move to my own practice, I just assumed I would purchase the same physician answering service as I had used previously. I never imagined that an answering service could represent such a large fraction of my overhead. When I combined this with a medical receptionist, medical technicians, a physician assistant, etc., it became difficult to justify the cost and yet I had to have an answering service.

Thankfully, as I was lamenting to a colleague she told me about software that would allow me to automate my phone answering service. I was a bit apprehensive at first but I soon realized that there are programs that are HIPAA compliant (always important) that function as a fully automated 24/7 medical answering service. As I began to look into the available products, I found that for less than I would pay a medical receptionist or a live answering service, I was able to get an automated appointment scheduler, appointment reminder system, and a 24/7 medical answering service. Moreover, this service is 24/7 online, working after hours, during lunch breaks, during coffee breaks and did not need time off for vacation.

Since I was trying to grow my solo practice, if this was going to alienate or anger patients, there is no way I would use it. I would have to break down and spend the money for a medical receptionist and a live answering service. What I found was an answering service with natural dialogue that was very easy patient-friendly. Patients could instantly arrange a time to see me right over the phone based on availability in my schedule. They did not need to talk to me or a medical receptionist and the process was faster and more reliable than the old paper appointment log.

A few programs are so sophisticated that you really do not need a front desk receptionist at all. The programs are reliable, inexpensive and can handle multiple calls simultaneously so your patients are never on hold. The major advantage of this (besides happier patients) is that emergent calls are immediately forwarded to the appropriate emergency contacts.

Before you renew or begin your contract with a live answering service, I highly recommend that you consider the various automated or virtual answering service programs. I think you will find that they are less expensive and in many ways superior to a traditional physician answering service.

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