Even though the phrase "call center" was first published and recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1983, the origins of call centers date back to the 1960s with the use of answering services.
Doctors have used medical answering services for decades. During normal business hours, answering services can take some of the workloads off medical office staff so they can focus on patient care. After hours, these services take messages from callers and relay them to the covering doctor.
Traditionally, medical answering service operators would contact doctors via pagers. The agent would alert the on-call doctor with a page and the doctor calls back to the answering service to find out more details.
Hospital Call Center Evolution
As technology developed, the healthcare industry began to establish its own call centers. Hospital call centers not only help with on-call needs, but they can also assist hospital systems with managing billing, collections, and patient communication. Healthcare call centers have proved to help streamline communications, improve efficiencies, enhance the patient experience, and even reduce expenses.
Medical call centers have become the hub of communications for health systems. The call center software they use is becoming more advanced and turning call centers into contact centers. While call centers primarily focus on voice calls, contact centers provide additional communication services by allowing people to contact the organization via live support/chat, social media, instant messaging apps, direct website interfaces, and email.
Contact center agents are trained to use each communication channel to engage patients and adhere to a healthcare system’s best practices. Reporting and agent performance metrics are adapted for each channel depending on its functions and capabilities.
Automation technology is used by some contact centers to bolster their services with bot agents and chatbots. The most common contact center automation trends include:
- Chatbots and conversational interface (CUI) tools.
- Active listening tools such as natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU), and natural language generation (NLG).
- Robotic process automation (RPA) to replace tier 0 caller support and other uncomplicated interactions that are task-oriented and programmable.
- Statistical machine learning that uses algorithms to mine data and find patterns to continuously improve systems.
However, bots aren’t able to process unique requests, handle complex situations, or express empathy. This is why some medical contact centers prefer to leverage a hybrid automation solution.
Used strategically, hospital contact centers can use automation to streamline communications and workflows by:
- Escalating complex calls to the most qualified agent.
- Providing a self-service interactive voice response (IVR) option for common or routine requests.
- Using automated forecasting to help interpret large quantities of data gathered by their software to understand trends, make predictions, and even schedule staff.
- Program agent scripting protocols to ensure the most updated information is given to callers and to guide operators through complicated calls.
Omnichannel Contact Centers
The combination of different communication channels, multiple healthcare departments, and possibly many hospitals and clinics within one healthcare system means that communication needs to be a seamless, singular experience for callers.
In healthcare, miscommunication can be life-threatening. Omnichannel contact centers are the most advanced type of contact center. They avoid the pitfalls of working in silos by optimizing technology across all channels so the entire caller journey is visible. Leveraging this data helps to improve the patient experience, agent efficiency, and organizational goals.
Virtual Contact Centers
Medical contact centers effectively become an extension of a hospital or healthcare center’s operations, and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have become especially crucial during the current pandemic and many operators are working from home. Web-based virtual agent software makes remote work possible by turning any personal computer into a professional agent workstation accessible via the Internet or a hospital’s local intranet. All of the tools used by an agent in a contact center are accessible to the virtual agent.
A virtual private network (VPN) connection is established for remote operators to ensure their connection is secure. Once agents are connected to the VPN, they can create their remote agent connection for data and audio. The data connection can be established via direct connection, remote desktop, thin client, Citrix, and VDI; and an audio connection via integrated audio or external audio.
The digital tools that on-premise agents use are also available to agents working remotely. Any updates made to those tools, the software, or scripting language happen instantaneously for all agents so they have the exact information they need to provide the best patient experience and reduce error rates.
Engaging with patients and community members across multiple channels, and leveraging that data to better serve them, requires forward-thinking strategies. In the future, successful hospital contact centers will evolve to keep up with other healthcare technologies and become digital-first communication hubs for their patients.
These hubs will play an even bigger role in helping healthcare organizations improve patient care by connecting patient experiences from across their enterprise for a more complete understanding of a patient’s journey.