Improve patient service: Keep your phones open during lunch hour

I have watched more offices over the past few years close their phones and front desk during the lunch hour. If you close your office for an hour at lunchtime, what message are you sending your patients?  You are declaring that serving your patients takes a back seat to serving yourself and your employees.  Closing your phone lines at lunchtime means that you are creating missed opportunities for a vital 20-25% of your business day.  Remember that a significant number of your patients are gainfully employed and they cannot make calls between 9-12 or 1-4 and the only time available to them is during their lunch hour.  There are going to be a significant number of patients who can only come to the office during their lunch hour and patients will be shunted to practices that are open for business during the lunch hour.

I know that I got push-back from my staff when we decided to keep the phone lines open and be able to see patients during the lunch hour.  My staff have developed camaraderie with each other and enjoy the time together when they are “off the stage” and able to kick back with each other or with a drug rep who often comes to sponsor a lunch.  However, our practice has a production based bonus plan and in order to reach the benchmarks, we need to be able to attract new patients and keep the ones we have by offering lunch time appointments.

We have eight employees and we stagger the lunch with 4 eating lunch and 4 either answering the phone or assisting with patient care.  We use the lunch time to see new patients who want to be seen that day or we see emergencies or urgencies during the lunch hour.  There are usually two patients who meet these criteria and are delighted to have this kind of access to the practice.

Once a month we have a staff meeting and we place the phone on the answering service with a message to the service that if there are emergency calls, they are to contact us on our “back” line.

As a result we are able to see 10-12 new additional patients or urgencies or emergencies each week.  You can do the math and see how this enhances our bottom line.  As a result we have patients who recognize our commitment to patient care, patient access to the practice, and that we place patient needs before our own.  We believe this change has resulted in minor adjustments on the part of our staff but the improvement in productivity and ultimately in staff bonuses have more than compensated for the small sacrifices that the staff have made.

Look for ways to be of greater service to your patients.  Modifying your lunch hour is one easy way to be more productive and provide greater service to your patients.

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MDor on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • John Henry

    If you have a small staff, that might not be possible, no matter what message you want to say. In my state, the message is: “state labor law requires we give our staff a full hour lunch break, and this is it.”

  • azmd

    Another great idea is to offer evening hours. I frequently wonder why it is that doctors in private practice appear to operate on a somewhat antiquated 8 am to 4 pm schedule. It is not unusual for me as a hospitalist to encounter patients who are obtaining the majority of their primary care from the ED or from urgent care, simply because those are the settings that offer availability during hours when the patient is not obligated to be at work.

  • John Henry

    Evening hours are anathema to support staff who have children and families and lives to live after work (same for doctors, also.) Same for Saturdays. Either you hire extra people, which is not always possible, or you pay overtime, which is even more undesireable, as it increases further the largest component of overhead that most medical practices have. And the doctor has to work those hours which, if they are not offset by time off at another point in the workweek leads to burnout. Staggered schedules really only are possible in larger practices with multiple doctors who have personal flexibility to work late.

    • azmd

      I don’t think anyone was suggesting that the doctor and his staff add extra hours to the workweek. I know lots of people, myself included, who would not mind working an evening in exchange for having one morning off. I think it would be workable, given a little bit of flexible thinking.

  • http://www.capko.com Laurie Morgan

    Even if your staff is so small that you can’t stay fully open for lunch, at least have someone answering the phone, since many patients will find they can only call for appointments during their own lunch breaks. This can be easily accomplished with staggered staff lunches. If you don’t answer the phone, new patients will likely try to reach other providers until they find someone who answers.

  • Molly_Rn

    Man, in ICU we thought about closing the unit and providing no care and answering no phones while we ate our 1/2 hour (if we ever got it) meal. In critical care (ICU/CCU/NICU/ED) a gourmet meal is one where you can sit down to eat and the food is warm. Having a cardiac arrest, sorry we are eating. Your arterial line dressing is coming off, sorry we are eating. Did you ever hear of taking turns and covering for each other? Not everyone needs to eat at exactly the same time.

  • Maura69

    When I was working for an EENT we never closed at lunch, in fact I would get to the office around 0500 and open for the allergy patients that had to be at work. I took the phones off answering service the minute I got there and didn’t put them on until sometimes after 2000/8:PM. Even during the nights and weekends either I or the physician were on call. One of us was always available, but this was in the late ’60′s to the early ’80′s. A different time.