Call Center Labs

Written by on December 5, 2011 in Practice tips - No comments
callcenterlabs

By Whitney L.J. Howell

Everywhere you look, the recent economic downturn has forced budget cuts. Health care is no different – and it’s likely that your practice or hospital has also been obliged to trim its spending. There are, however, ways to work within your means and still meet the necessary patient care and safety standards.

One hospital system, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, found its answer in a pathology lab call center. Manned by official lab staff, the call center gives its health system physicians immediate access to expert pathology information without pulling lab scientists away from their duties.

“Asking a scientist to leave his or her work when a call came in left whatever sample was being analyzed just sitting on the table,” says Sue Zaleski, pathology lab manager. “Dedicating people and a space to answering calls helps with efficiency, quality control, and error prevention.”

So, in 2005, with support of her administration, Zaleski launched the call center in a room adjacent to the lab. She hired a telemarketing professional to structure the center and train the scientists to focus on customer service. Merging telemarketing expertise with the intricacies of a highly technical environment is the bedrock of why the call center has been so successful, she says.

Each day, 10 certified lab scientists field, on average, more than 150 calls from health care provider offices. The questions vary widely, including inquiries about which type of blood draw is best for a particular test or how to transport certain samples.

The scientists rotate through the call center on a schedule, and these shifts are an added responsibility on top of their work with analyzing samples. Zaleski says she has been surprised by how much taking on call center duties has improved her lab scientists’ job satisfaction.

“The scientists love it when their turn for the rotation comes around,” she says. “It gives them a nice break – the call center is quiet. They can sit down for a few hours, and they get to pair their research skills with their technical knowledge to help people.”

While the scientists enjoy a break from their regular routine, the benefit to the University comes from the increased efficiency in analyzing samples, she says. There’s no cost savings, but boosting the number of samples scrutinized daily is an improvement in lab productivity.

The call center is also valuable because it allows the scientists to focus their attention and speak directly with providers. This is particularly important with urgent requests about high-priority samples. Under federal health care regulations, certified lab scientists can only provide critical value notifications to licensed care providers. The call center’s single focus has helped the lab truncate its response time on high-priority samples to less than 15 minutes.

Fielding calls from health care providers also gives the lab scientists an opportunity to share their pathology knowledge one-on-one. Not only can they pull from their own extensive knowledge, but they have access to an arsenal of research sources that can augment the answers they provide.

Thanks to the telemarketing professional, each scientist has received extensive customer service training, including how to speak articulately and with empathy, listen closely to the caller and master the available reference materials to find information quickly.

Despite being in operation for a few years, Zaleski says the health care providers who contact the call center haven’t offered much feedback. At first, the silence bugged her, but she now says it’s not a negative sign. “We were initially deflated because no one gave us any idea of what their experience with the call center had been,” she says. “But we soon realized that when you do something well, especially for a group as busy as health care providers are, you don’t leave much of an impression. It’s when you do things poorly that you hear about it. So, we’re taking no reaction as a good thing.”

That doesn’t mean the call center isn’t keeping track of its own performance. Each call is recorded to keep tabs on how long it lasts, the number of times the caller is transferred, and how long it takes the scientist to supply an answer. The audio files are also used to protect the scientists who speak with providers. They can support the accuracy of provided information or reveal if a caller demonstrated problematic behavior, Zaleski says.

If you’re considering a lab call center to increase productivity and smooth communication between your health care providers and the pathology scientists, there are a few points to remember, Zaleski says. First, take a look at your certified lab staff and how they go about their daily work. What do they do with their existing resources? How would the additional responsibility of working in a call center affect their current responsibilities and job satisfaction? If all signs point to the need for a call center, take the idea to your administration and get proper buy-in from facility leaders. Ultimately, the long-term impact for your institution could be very positive.

Whitney Howell
is a seasoned reporter, writer, freelancer and public relations specialist with a master’s degree in international print journalism from The American University in Washington, D.C. She launched her journalism career as a stringer for UPI on Sept. 11, 2001, on Capitol Hill. That day led to a two-year stint as a daily political reporter in Montgomery County, Md. As a staff writer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, a public relations specialist for the Duke University Medical Center and the public relations director for the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing, She’s earned in-depth experience in covering health care, including academic medicine, health care reform, women’s health, pediatrics, radiology, and Medicare

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