Posted By Mercury Healthcare (formerly Healthgrades) on 08/28/2020

How to Manage a Remote Medical Call Center During a Public Health Crisis

How to Manage a Remote Medical Call Center During a Public Health Crisis

Medical call centers hold a critical role in any health system, serving as the link between patients, providers, administrative staff, and other healthcare professionals along the continuum of care. During a global crisis such as COVID-19, call center staff become an even more crucial resource as patient inquiries increase and call volume spikes.

On a normal day, medical call centers (also known as contact centers) handle multiple calls, emails, and other forms of digital communication including appointment scheduling, emergency routing, telehealth services, referrals, and transport dispatch. A team of trained representatives, using scripts to guide their conversations, may handle anywhere from 50 to 100 calls or messages per day – and many are on call at all hours of the day and night.

Managing a medical call center is no easy task, especially considering the tendency toward high agent turnover and the need for 24/7 agent availability. Management challenges increase even more when a health crisis such as COVID-19 hits. Almost overnight, many health systems have had to take their call centers remote to protect the health and safety of their employees.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the challenges remote medical call centers face during a global health crisis and offer tips for managing a team of agents working from home. With the right strategy, processes, and preparatory efforts, you may even find that a remote call center suits your operational needs long-term.


Overseeing a medical call center during a pandemic  

When any external threat arises – whether it is an unprecedented viral pandemic or a winter ice storm – customer service hubs and medical call centers tend to see increases in activity. Patients want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario: What if they can’t get to the pharmacy to refill their prescriptions? What if concerning symptoms arise? Should they reschedule their upcoming annual exam? Call center agents are often single handedly responsible for answering these questions or, when necessary, passing the message along to the appropriate party. 

Telehealth provider Carenet Health reported a 60% uptick in calls to nurse lines during the final two weeks of March 2020, just as the reality of COVID-19 began to set in across larger metropolitan areas in the United States. Simultaneously, they saw a 1,600% increase in general calls regarding the novel coronavirus from all 50 states. Many of these calls came from patients experiencing symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 diagnosis; others inquired about risk factors or asked how to best take care of potentially infected family members.

For medical call center agents, the pandemic has brought about many repetitive, worrisome, and perhaps inconclusive conversations with anxious patients. Additionally, as the majority of agents transition into the remote workforce, many of them are having trouble adapting to a work-from-home environment. They are struggling to stay engaged and maintain productivity, compounding issues for the call center.

All this is to say: Managing a remote medical call center during a pandemic is a tactical challenge. Both telecommuting and in-office agents are working in an increasingly stressful environment. They require additional support to keep morale high and continue to provide the frontline communication the public so desperately needs. In some cases, this may mean hiring and training additional staff in a short timeframe; in others, it’s a matter of conducting regular one-on-one meetings, carefully coordinating schedules, providing crisis-appropriate scripts, and offering ample bonuses to keep motivation levels up.

Many health systems have found success in opening dedicated COVID-19 hotlines with prerecorded messaging that provides answers to common questions. These hotlines often include escalation points that allow patients to quickly connect with an agent or on-call nurse. In addition, outsourcing part of the medical call center to third-party providers can bring relief to smaller organizations with limited staff.

Other best practices for supporting your medical call center during a crisis include:

  • Establishing an outbound dialing campaign that notifies patients of facility closures, safety procedures or protocols, cancellations of nonessential surgeries and procedures, etc. This message should include clear information on next steps that patients must take to reschedule as well as protocols for contacting their provider.
  • Adding a HIPAA-compliant recording to the highest level of your phone tree or interactive voice recording system, or adding pop-up windows with similar messaging to your website and patient portal.
  • Deploying a text message alert system that sends pandemic-related updates to patients who opt in.
  • Providing detailed (and frequently updated) scripts to help agents through difficult calls amidst changing health system procedures.
  • Keeping the doors to communication between call center agents, shift leaders, and managers open to make sure any difficulties can be expressed and remedied promptly.
  • Setting up a bonus or rewards system to keep agents motivated and prevent burnout.
  • Constantly communicating company-wide initiatives, relevant facts and figures, upcoming patient communication campaigns, and day-to-day operational updates to agents and other call center employees.
  • Ensuring call center agents are set up for success with work-from-home operations, should remote work become a necessity.

 

4 Benefits of Transforming the Contact Center

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To prevent community spread and enforce social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, many health systems decided to transition their call center employees to remote work. Oftentimes this transition happened rapidly, with only a few days of preparation involved. This produced a formidable learning curve, where managers needed to keep employees productive and engaged despite geographic barriers. Yet once the transition was complete, th­­e right technology was implemented, and processes were established, remote medical call centers have been just as operationally successful as on-premises call centers.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits, challenges, and necessary tools for setting up a remote medical call center.

 

Benefits of remote medical call center

While the idea of transitioning a close-knit medical call center to remote operations may seem daunting, with the right processes in place, it can be highly beneficial for both the health system and its employees. As long as agents are properly trained and receive plenty of managerial support, working from home can actually boost productivity. It also enables a better work-life balance for those who may have otherwise spent hours each day commuting to and from their workplace.

Health systems that offer remote work also benefit from the ability to select from a wider talent pool when hiring. This is especially helpful for organizations located in smaller towns or rural areas, where finding qualified individuals locally tends to be a challenge. A remote medical call center will also lead to significant cost savings: With no office space to pay for and maintain, health systems can devote more resources to employee development, technology, and other important initiatives.

 

Management challenges to consider

There are, of course, some practical challenges that health systems must consider when transitioning to remote call center operations. For instance, health systems may not have existing procedures or guidelines in place to support their agents working from home – especially when this transition happens rapidly in response to a crisis.

It’s critical that a task force made up of shift leaders, managers, and executive-level stakeholders are assigned to oversee the transition. Expectations should be clearly set from the beginning around how agents should clock in and out for their shifts, how to maintain data security and privacy compliance under HIPAA regulations, and how to seek support from their teammates and leadership when needed.

One potential challenge that the task force must address early on is the lack of technological and physical workspace infrastructure within call center agents’ homes. Not all employees can be expected to have a perfect home office setup; those who live in smaller apartments with children or family members may need advice on how best to create a working environment in the space they have available. Survey your workforce as soon as possible to determine if additional tools, such as headsets or remote access points, are needed.

Finally, there’s the basic challenge of managing a large team without face-to-face interaction. Medical call center managers should maintain a normal schedule with team meetings, trainings, call coaching, and one-on-one video chats. Managers and team members should also make themselves available throughout the day for quick questions or check-ins via chat or email.

Agent schedules must be carefully monitored and upheld to avoid “schedule creep” – where agents, due to the differences in physical accountability when working from home versus in an office, may check in a little late or continue to work beyond their shift to cover for a team member who is not yet signed on. Managers can avoid this issue by enforcing processes for clocking in and clocking out, even if it’s as simple as sending a message to the shift leader. 

 

The importance of technological infrastructure

If a call center agent does not have the basic necessities at home to perform his or her job, health systems must find a way to deliver the required resources. Internet access, for example, can be provided with portable WiFi “pucks,” or remote access points, so long as the agent’s home gets strong 4G cell service. Sufficient funds should be set aside in the call center budget to make sure laptops, VPNs, headsets, and other critical pieces of technology can be provided to each agent and regularly serviced to prevent functional difficulties.

A cloud-based Engagement Center solution is another tool that becomes especially critical when agents are working from home. An Engagement Center platform syncs to the healthcare CRM, providing agents with instant access to communication history with that caller and allowing them to view other relevant information to guide their conversation. For example, an agent can see if the caller on the other line recently downloaded a COVID-19 patient resource guide from the health system website. This can be used to facilitate a discussion that quickly resolves the patient’s needs.

A healthcare CRM-enabled call center cuts down on the number of screens a representative has to open to handle a single call – in most cases, the only other systems needed are the scheduling portal and EMR. This enables agents to handle calls quickly while limiting network access and ensuring patient data is secure while agents operate from home.

A centralized Engagement Center also makes agents’ lives easier when handling a surge in call volume. Agents can quickly identify callers and understand why they are calling, sometimes even before either party says “hello.” With access to accurate caller information agents are better prepared to pull up the appropriate script or guide the conversation efficiently. This translates into more satisfied patients who feel supported and reassured that their network of providers is there for them when they need it most.

 

Final Thoughts 

Operating a medical call center during times of national or global crisis takes heroic levels of patience, determination, and adaptability from contact center leaders and agents alike. Call center agents may be the only reliable resource patients have access to during an event as serious as COVID-19. Therefore, they should spare no investment to support agents and compensate them fairly for the critical work they perform.

Maintaining regular communication with agents and providing plenty of managerial support is the first step to keeping your medical contact center up and running when call volume spikes. If your call center goes fully remote, agents must be equipped with all of the technological and physical resources they need to provide the best patient experience possible. While this requires some upfront investment, it will pay off. When you assert yourself as a trusted source of expertise in this tumultuous time, you are bound to experience greater patient acquisition and retention. 



The original version of this page was published at:  https://partners.healthgrades.com/blog/how-to-manage-a-remote-medical-call-center-during-a-public-health-crisis