Once upon a time, doctors made house calls. Now we go to the doctor and have to call to make an appointment. Outside of office hours, if you need to call, you’ll likely end up with an answering service of some kind on the other end of the phone. Human operators, a menu that asks you to push buttons in response to questions, voice mail messages giving instructions for emergencies, or some combination are what awaits us after hours.
Patients often seem to forget that doctors do not live in their offices. They have families they like to spend time with. They have errands to run and children to chase. They even occasionally like to eat. They may be on-call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but they are not always in the office.
A dedicated doctor will have set up a system by which his patients can contact him outside his office hours. A smart doctor will have set up a system that keeps her from facing a malpractice suit when a patient has complications outside office hours.
A physicians’ answering service can help a doctor handle his or her patients’ after hour concerns efficiently and smartly. The key point of any such service is that messages are delivered securely, correctly, and in a timely fashion. An answering service should be HIPAA compliant, efficient in taking messages, and knowledgeable enough to know what constitutes an emergency and therefore requires an immediate call to the doctor.
Any answering service is an extension of a doctor’s practice. It is a doctor’s responsibility to ensure that the service understands his or her expectations and is taking care of his patients when they call in the manner that he desires. You should look for a service that answers patients quickly without putting them on hold, is courteous to all your patients, and has a staff of well-paid, well-trained operators. You should look for this and also expect a good price. Like everything else, you get what you pay for.
A good answering service doesn’t necessarily mean that all calls are automatically answered by a human being. Using a touchtone system can help narrow down calls that can wait from those that require the doctor’s immediate attention. The quality of the service matters far more than who (or what) initially picks up the phone after hours.
Quality of service means that your patients don’t end up answering 53 questions, drawing blood, and offering their firstborn as a sacrifice before they can talk to an actual human. You should be sure your service limits how many questions must be answered before the patient gets connected to a person. A poorly set up answering service that has patients basically on hold for extended periods not only annoys patients, but can put you legally at risk of a malpractice suit if something is seriously wrong and the patient can’t reach you. The same concern applies to using a voice mail for answering your calls; you need to be sure that urgent calls can be brought to your immediate attention.
A quality answering service will also treat every caller with respect. Because your answering directly reflects on your practice, anything else could mean the lose of a patient. Your business depends on a courteous service talking your after hour calls. If you are lucky enough to work in a practice with multiple doctors, you could answer calls yourself, taking turns with a cell phone dedicated to after hour calls, thus ensuring that your patients are cared for with all the attention they deserve.