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The overlooked role during COVID-19: How contact center operators are holding down the virtual front line

May 14, 2020

Recently Congress and the Trump administration passed a new aid package of nearly $500 billion in emergency funding, of which $75 billion is being allocated to hospitals and $25 billion for coronavirus testing. It’s clear that COVID-19 is posing an unprecedented challenge to healthcare organizations across the country. While some hospitals face extreme financial trouble, others scramble to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, establish drive-thru testing sites, and transform entire units to COVID-19 treatment wings.  

During these trying times, an outcry of support has ensued for the heroic doctors, nurses, first responders, and others on the front line of COVID-19. But, there is another group of workers who are emerging as heroes for their integral role during the pandemic: the men and women who continue to carry out contact center operations. Call centers have been deemed “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security in order to keep customer service lines running smoothly. 

There has been so much focus on the physical front line of COVID-19, that we forget that the contact center is the virtual front line. Before people step foot inside facility, they are often on the phone calling for guidance and reassurance. Some examples include: 

  • The grocery store clerk asking how to get tested for Coronavirus 
  • The 36-week pregnant woman wanting to understand the hospital’s policies during delivery 
  • A gallbladder patient inquiring about rescheduling her postponed surgery  
  • A concerned daughter calling to get information about her father who was just transferred to the hospital from assisted living 

These are all calls that hospital contact centersare receiving today, in addition to those they answer on a regular basis.  

Hospital contact centers have many responsibilities that have a direct impact on care team communication and patient outcomes, from activating code calls to deploying  emergency notifications. However, it’s the relatively routine responsibility of handling outside calls from patients and their loved ones that has the most influence on the well-being of the organization itself. 

The importance of contact centers during a crisis  

Contact centers across numerous industries, not just healthcare, have been inundated with rising call volume due to COVID-19. Yet, as Dr. James Merlino, former Chief Experience Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, has pointed out, healthcare is very different from other customer service environments. It’s the “ultimate service business” because in many cases, patients don’t want to be a customer at all. Hospital staff are communicating with them during what is often the most vulnerable part of their lives.  

Providing excellent customer service to patients over the phone can contribute to an overall positive patient experience and also strengthen your hospital’s reputation in the community. 

Many of the hospital and health system contact centers we partner with field more than 100,000 calls each year. This number doesn’t account for the increased call volume resulting from the pandemic. According to a recent article published by the New Haven Register, Yale New Haven Health reported call volume increased 156% over a three day period in MarchAs part of COVID-19 preparedness, 16 operators were staffed to answer questions not only from people in Connecticut, but from 20 states. If a patient met criteria for a clinical assessment, they had eight doctors staffed to conduct a phone or video assessment.  

In the article, Dr. Christian Pettker, associate chief quality officer for the Yale New Haven Health System explained how contact center operations are helping clinicians to manage their patients and offices. They’re screening for patients who are at risk or who might have the infection—all efforts to help contain the virus and mitigate potential surge of patients into the hospital.  

Keep up the good fight 

At any time, and especially during an emergency situation like COVID-19, it’s important to maintain a consistently high level of service. How can you ensure that your contact center operators have access to the information they need to serve patients and their families quickly and easily during this rapidly evolving situation? 

Technology is a big part of helping operators.  

If your contact center discovered or is currently experiencing communication barrierswe’re here to help address those challenges 

How we’re helping now:  

Providing resources and best practices: 

Offering assistance to current customers: 

  • Remote Console workstation licenses for existing Spok customers to support work from home initiatives related to COVID-19 (licensing at no charge during the COVID-19 crisis) 
  • Additional secure messaging (Spok Mobile®licenses for existing Spok Mobile customers to support enterprise communications related to COVID-19 (licensing at no charge during the COVID-19 crisis) 
  • Emergency notification (eNotify) licenses for existing Spok (Smart Suite) customers to help you quickly and reliably notify staff during emergency situations (licensing at no charge during the COVID

If you’d like to learn more about any of these options, please reach out to your sales representative. You can also call (800) 231-2556 or email inforequest@spok.com 

How we can help later (when you’re ready): 

  • An enterprise-wide contact center solution can empower clinicians to update their contact information and let departments manage their own on-call schedules. This solution also allows users to look up another user by name or role and send them a message on whichever device they prefer, eliminating the need to rely on the contact center to do so. This means users don’t need the name of the person they’re looking for: Simply typing “incident commander” will find who that person is at that time. 
  • Speech recognition technology can also make life easier for your operators. In addition to having a web-based option for messaging, hospital staff can simply call into your speech system and say the name or role they wish to message, and the speech-to-text engine will get that message out. This can help offload a portion of routine internal requests, such as transfers, directory assistance, messaging, and paging, that can draw operators’ time and attention away from offering a high level of service to patients. 
  • Call recording and quality management software enhances call quality and professionalism by providing an intuitive system for recording and evaluating how all calls are handled. Contact center managers can record calls as well as concurrent screen activities, monitor performance, and even produce comparative reports for individual agents. This can also help guide contact center best practices and operator training during a quickly evolving situation such as COVID-19. 

Thanks to every contact center operator for your dedication in caring for our communities, friends, and family members.  

Know that we are here to help any way that we can. 

 

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By Amy Hoerner Balser, Director, Product Management
Amy is a senior director of product management and strategy at Spok. She is a proactive leader with a proven track record of creating, growing, and developing process and products that are well-rounded and make life better.  Amy has her MBA from Hamline University, a certificate in change leadership from Cornell University, and is a certified Scrum product owner and ScrumMaster. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.