Managing Healthcare Call Center Stress and Overload: Techniques and Best Practices

Industry, Industry Partner,

Submitted by Hyro, an Industry Partner of PAC

Calling to schedule a medical appointment can be stressful. Combine the discomfort of talking about a health problem with waiting on hold, and you got yourself 40% of patients preferring to book appointments online, according to an industry report.

“They’re not calling to schedule a Disney Cruise—they’re calling about their health, their lives,” says Amber Townsend, Director of Contact Center Operations at University of South Florida and Tampa General Physicians, about patient calls.

The situation is often no better on the receiving end of those calls. Contact center agents face high call volumes, late-night shifts, and disgruntled callers on a daily basis. It’s no wonder that health access centers across the US are struggling to keep their staff energized, motivated, and fulfilled.

“What I explain to my team members is that it’s not you that they’re frustrated with,” says Townsend. “It’s the process. It’s the system. It’s that they aren’t feeling well.”

Healthcare Call Centers on Life Support

Attrition rates are soaring across US healthcare call centers, with Patient Access Collaborative members reporting +25% turnover a year.

Working a shift on the call line may feel like a Sisyphean task, with dead-end calls the norm at many centers. In fact, cloud-based communication platform 8X8 reported in 2019 that 67% of callers hang up the phone before they speak to a call center employee due to long wait times and confusing call systems. The same 8x8 report found 13% of calls in the healthcare industry are disconnected before the caller is routed to an agent due to technical errors and other issues.

Whether waiting on a telehealth line or scheduling an in-person appointment, frustration can set in swiftly on both sides of the phone. Answering the same questions repeatedly quickly becomes boring and monotonous for call center agents, and finding solutions for complicated scenarios or receiving the brunt of an array of emotions—from anger to frustration to sadness—can leave both parties confused, helpless, and emotionally drained.

There's a pressing and immediate need to reshuffle the cards, chart out sustainable strategies, and harness technology to meet the rising demand for convenient, self-service patient access without overextending and exhausting call center staff.

Four Steps to Better Healthcare Call Centers

From AI solutions to team building and emotional support, here are four processes and solutions to incorporate into your access center’s workforce management to build happier, less stressed, and more productive teams.

1. Create a System to Address Issues

Tracking problems and resolving them is one of the biggest hurdles to enacting change at healthcare call centers—where call volume may hover into the thousands or millions. 

UT Southwestern Medical Center, for example, receives 4.7 million calls per year with more than 300 access scheduling chain numbers. With a call volume that high, errors are inevitable.

The center used to work with an email and manually updated Excel system to track issues, but that system made it challenging to initiate lasting improvements. About four years ago, a committee of UT physicians and clinic management access leaders worked to replace that system with an automated Help Desk integrated with the hospital's IT platform.

With errors logged automatically, UT employees now have a clearer picture of the gaps to fill. Jennifer Ward, Director for Patient Access at UT, says team members now see mistakes as part of the path to building a better workplace. Moreover, Ward says, “perfection is not our standard,” with an error ratio expectation of less than 2%.

“Team members are not robots, we get very complex calls, we get very unique scenarios that we can’t outline all the time,” says Ward, who was part of the committee to enact changes. “We want to do everything we can to make sure that the commitment to quality is there.”

2. Automate Call Center Appointment Scheduling

In NAHAM’s 2019 AccessKeys Benchmarking Survey, 90% of respondents stated that appointment scheduling is their most common type of inbound call (i.e., their main call driver). Automating your call center appointment scheduling capabilities means offsetting much of the pressure on your agents while maximizing the number of revenue-generating appointments. AI automation for call centers is out there, and the good news is that it can be easily and securely integrated with your existing systems and EMRs.

Solutions like Hyro’s Call Center Automation enable health systems to deploy a digital workforce of AI assistants that can schedule, reschedule, or cancel appointments end-to-end. Hyro’s voice assistants can pick up the phone and handle the entire call without the need for human assistance or route more complex cases to an agent.

For Novant Health’s “Care Connections” team, this means 85% of all inbound calls are automatically deflected and resolved at first touch, with Average Hold Time (AHT) plummeting by 99%. A win-win for both patients and Novant’s support agents.

3. Build a Better Knowledge Base Through Strong Leadership

Leaders who involve employees when addressing issues are likely to have the best results when creating new workflow processes.

A team of 450 call center agents at University of Colorado Health is part of an effort to change decision trees to meet patients’ needs. Gary Henry, Vice President of the Patient Line Center there, says that by including employees’ perspectives, you “empower your team to do the job.” With new processes to meet and discuss system-wide improvements, Henry says 88% of employees report job satisfaction.

Considering various viewpoints—from senior leaders to nurse triage—leads to better-automated systems, such as chat, which is crucial to telehealth at The University of North Carolina (UNC) Health outpatient access center. 

Its telehealth nursing team consults with its nurse triage team to anticipate what patients will say while scheduling an appointment in chat. That commitment to adding on-the-ground knowledge to automated systems is key, says Laurie O’Brien, Director of UNC’s Outpatient Access Center.

Says O’Brien: “Our greatest automation needs are knowledge-base solutions to keep all the information that our teams rely on.”

4. “They’re not calling to schedule a Disney Cruise”: Make Time for Emotional Support

When it comes to people’s health, emotions can run high, posing a challenge for customer service employees. Disappointed patients may take their frustrations out on call center employees. As University of South Florida and Tampa General Physician call center trainers remind employees: People aren’t calling to schedule a vacation; they are calling because they are sick.

Townsend—who uses the Disney Cruise teaching moment—says that effective training helps employees learn how to manage negative feedback. With remote employees, training includes building engagement and support from a distance and together as a team. Hybrid employees must work in the office weekly or monthly, with in-person meetings required. When talking to patients, call centers and clinics are one unit, even if they aren’t in the same building.

“We’re making sure that we are providing that experience that we are right there, we’re part of the clinical staff and operations,” says Townsend, who trains employees to avoid language that suggests call centers are remote or apart from clinics. “We want to focus on what the patient is asking for and what their needs are, and how we can meet those needs.”

*All quotes are taken from Patient Access Collaborative's 2023 Virtual Call Center Conference