8 reasons why your practice needs to stay open during lunch

Most professional business enterprises nationwide understand that they could never expect to compete in the marketplace if they shut down their phones 20 – 25% of important business hours every day. Yet that is exactly what your medical practice is doing if you are shutting your phones down for a “lunch break”.

You might be wondering how important can this really be for a medical practice? Can’t patients just wait an hour?  Though it may seem overwhelming to offer lunchtime phone coverage after years of an entrenched habit, it’s worth your effort to make this change.  Many of your colleagues are keeping phones open during the lunch hour and are growing their practices at a rapid pace.  In fact, some of your own patients might be leaving to go to a practice that keeps lunch hours open to provide better service.  In addition, you are likely to learn that opening phone lines at lunch time reduces a lot of staff stress and work created by trying to ‘catch up’ while manage telephone demand. You will certainly discover within a short time that inbound calls during peak hours will be substantially reduced.

Keeping phone lines open throughout business hours can be accomplished with some creative scheduling and a clear protocol on how to handle these calls. Your practice is a business and must serve the needs of patients when it’s convenient for them – your customer. When you make this change, you would expect patients to be delighted, but you might be surprised at how much your staff appreciates the difference too. Here are eight concrete reasons keeping your phone lines open during lunch is better for patients,  better for your staff and no longer optional for practices that want to compete and thrive.

1. Mixed messages. Saying on your website, practice brochure or mission statement that your practice has excellent customer service, that your focus is meeting patient’s needs doesn’t jibe with the practice of closing the phone lines and locking the doors at lunch.  An inconsistent message creates an identity crisis for your practice and renders those messages meaningless and hollow. As the old adage goes, “Actions speak louder than words” – Render business practices that reinforce your message and create trust, build patient loyalty!

2. Lost opportunity. Often new patients are working off of an online list of doctors provided by their insurance company or simple pulled up from Google when searching their condition or your specialty. When they call your office and get voice mail they will likely move on down the list to the next physician – and if that practice is smart enough to know to keep phone lines open through the lunch hour, you bet they have a good chance of scheduling and acquiring that new patient. Keep the highway to your practice open during the lunch hour and capture new patients with a stellar first impression!

3. Increased cost. When patients call and leave messages at lunch or hang up and call back again later, you’ve just made the post-lunch hour laden with duplicate work. Messages have to be processed and responded to, in the meantime new calls are coming in, patient visits have resumed and some of those patients may decide to call back again, not trusting that their message got through – all of this amounts to more work and less efficiency for your staff –costing more to run your business while getting less accomplished. Receive calls and process requests in this small way during the lunch hour, and boost after-lunch efficiency!

4. Frustrated patients. Every business exists to solve a problem of its customers. In the medical practice, customers are patients and their problems feel very personal and important. Meeting a patient’s immediate need to get through to their doctor’s practice and be assured that their concern is being handled is not difficult with live phone coverage and it means so much to your patients. On the other hand, frustration mounts when a patient can’t get through and doesn’t feel confident in leaving a voice mail message in hopes that someone will pick it up and respond. These patients will often call again creating duplicate work – and when they do call back they are already agitated creating a less-than-positive experience for patients and staff.  Assure callers that they’ve been heard through the lunch hour and your staff and your practice come out smelling like a rose!

5. Image wars. We can no longer ignore the fact that competition for customers exists. Patients are less trusting and loyal toward their physicians than in years past, making it easier for them to ‘try out another practice’. Online reviews of restaurants and hotels are commonplace, the online review of physicians is growing rapidly – why wouldn’t potential patients look to see what your patients are saying about you online? You want patients in your community talking about your incredible accessibility and patient-centered philosophy to woo new patients and underscore existing patient’s loyalty. Your image matters and live coverage of phones throughout the day makes patients feel valued, giving them the service they expect.  Express value by meeting patients’ needs with excellence and watch your image soar!

6. Attrition. When patients are not getting through to your practice when they need to their loyalty wanes, making them more likely to go shopping elsewhere. Attrition is costly to your medical practice because of the expense of attracting and processing a new patient. Keeping existing patients satisfied is cost efficient as subsequent visits are more profitable. Besides, building long-term relationships with patients is rewarding for you and your staff.  Open up those phone lines – build loyalty and reduce attrition!

7. Valuable referrals. All of the above speaks to increased quality of customer service. No one wants to refer someone they care about to an office they aren’t sure will meet the needs of the new patient.  When you outshine your competition by simply being available to patients when they need to get through, you increase your patient referral base. You bet they are going to tell their friends and family about how quickly they got through, how friendly the staff was and how they didn’t have to wait for a call back! Taking patient calls throughout the day gives your patients all the more reason to refer with confidence!

8. Timely medical care. When a patient leaves a message because they have a medical need and your staff calls back at a time that isn’t convenient for your patient and the call is missed, you have a case of ‘phone tag’ that is not only frustrating to your patient but is resulting in delayed care. Sometimes several calls, messages and return calls occur before the patient is able to make an appointment to be seen, get an answer to an important question or obtain needed prescriptions when phone coverage is not available. When care is delayed, overall health service is compromised – this is not healthy for your practice or your patients. Process calls at lunch, expedite healthcare for patients!

When I bring these issues to the attention of a practice, often the change is made quickly and the philosophy embraced.  Other times, however, I hear reasons why they think they can’t provide this to patients.  Whether it’s the lack of staff, the need to ‘catch up’ at lunch or the camaraderie of a shared lunch hour, these excuses simply don’t hold water when we see practices everywhere finding a way to do this and thriving.

There are other ways to successfully meet the needs of your staff and the practice while staying on top of calls throughout the day. If you want camaraderie – have a shared meal once a month, staff meetings during low-call volume hours and out-of-office events. There will be less need to ‘catch up’ when lunch hour calls are not put off until the afternoon.  In addition, staff hours can start a half hour before phone lines open in the morning or extend afterward – putting calls off does not decrease workload. When a practice adopts this philosophy and comes to understand the benefits to the overall practice, solutions can be found that meet the needs of your staff while keeping phone lines open to receive patient calls.

Some practice administrators or physicians may be concerned that they or other staff members will be disturbed during their lunch break with interruptions resulting from these calls.  It’s crucial that all staff members take a lunch and other breaks –  not only is it important for them to recharge from dealing with a sometimes demanding public but it’s also a legal requirement for employers to enforce breaks.

Smaller practices might wonder how to accomplish this coverage with just a couple employees.  Some practices stagger or rotate lunch hours and others use part-time employees who come in later to cover the phones during the lunch break. During peak hours for some practices, employees who don’t usually cover the phones will direct their focus to meet demand – such as a biller – this same practice-specific ingenuity can be put to work to relieve your staff of the after-lunch crunch and kick up customer service a notch by offering lunchtime phone coverage.  A little creativity and teamwork are required but the benefits to your practice and your patients are worth the effort.

Finally, more practices are recognizing that, indeed, their practice is a business and needs to model behavior, processes and customer service that already exists with other professional health enterprises, professional businesses – such as accountants, lawyers, and financial advisors, and their own colleagues.  Surely you are among the best, so get on the bandwagon of superb customer service and practice efficiency – and stick with it once you start. Reap the rewards of being among the best practices and be amazed at how having phones open during all your business hours can contribute to increased efficiency, a better bottom-line and happier patients!

Cheryl Bisera is a marketing consultant for healthcare professionals and founder of Cheryl Bisera Consulting.  This article is reprinted with permission from The Journal of Medical Practice Management.

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