Have you called into your office lately? Maybe you should, if for no other reason than to experience what your patients and other people go through when they call in. A pleasant experience will leave a pleasant image, while a negative experience can create an instant hostile exchange when the patient does get through, and if a new patient, the frustration could lead patients to seek another doctor.

Generally, the first contact a patient has with a physician is by way of the physician’s phone.  If difficult, the impression is the practice, and the physicians are uncaring or difficult. The staff that does answer the phone life will tell you that a frustrated patient will be more exhausting and time-consuming for your staff to deal with.  Is your phone system setting you up for a more difficult patient-physician relationship than necessary?

The value of making the initial contact with you a positive one is borne out by studies that show the benefit of doing it right and the determent of doing it wrong.  Numerous studies have indicated that patients who view their physician in this negative manner are far more likely to sue if or when something goes wrong in the course of their treatment. Others show that a client’s or customer’s perception of their wait time is directly related to their overall customer satisfaction. One study found that 68% of a company’s lost customer base is due to indifferent or negative phone treatment.

On Hold Surveys, Studies & Facts


How callers are treated over the phone, how they are greeted, the automated messages, and any labyrinth to find a live person all impact how a patient perceives they will be treated by the practice and its physician.  Treat this first impression opportunity in a brash manner or as an interruption of more important things, chances are that’s how the patient will believe they will be treated when they go in for a visit. If the phone rings and rings, they will think twice about becoming a patient. Don’t call back, when a message is left, and you dramatically increase the chance of losing the patient, and the revenue they bring.

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Assessing if your phone system needs help

The first step in assessing if your phone system needs improvement? Pick up a phone and dial.

Call in as an outside caller and try to maneuver through the system. Is it easy? Is it friendly? Can an older patient use it without frustration?  Have family and friend try out the system as well.

Do your own little study; did you perceive the voice on the other end as warm, friendly and caring? Are there too many prompts? Is it easy to get to speak to an actual person?

Use the time that your patients are in the waiting room to conduct your own brief. Ask how they feel about their experience with reaching your office by phone. Keep the responses anonymous for more likely honest answers.

What can you do to fix it?

Knowing what works and does not is the starting point for implementing the need fixes. Some things to consider:

  • Reduce the number of prompts in your system to one set. If this isn’t possible, offer callers the option of speaking to an operator in the first and subsequent series of prompts.
  • Make sure the phone is answered promptly – ideally before the third ring. Any longer gives the impression your office is inefficient.
  • Use call forwarding to a live administrative staff member instead of an answering service or lengthy automated service. Nothing beats talking to a live human being when you’re calling about urgent medical matters.
  • Allow callers on hold to listen to messages about your practice, rather than silence or music. With silence, they wonder if they’ve been disconnected, while music can be grating or annoying depending on the caller’s tastes.
  • Record your practice’s outgoing message yourself, rather than having a nurse or receptionist do it. It lends a personal air to your practice and puts patients at ease. Now EHR software has reduced this hurdles to managing and preserving the patient’s data in paper forms.
  • If your system is older, there are new technological features that can improve patient satisfaction; Auto attendant, call overflow, and direct inbound dialing (DID).
  • If you have multiple offices, set up one networked phone system for your entire operation. This helps patients perceive you as one seamless practice, which bolsters the perception of you and keeps your sites covered at all times.

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What should you avoid?

  • Don’t allow calls to go to voicemail during business hours. This sends the message that your practice is understaffed, which can mean long wait times for them in your office.
  • Don’t use busy signals. Establish enough phone lines instead.
  • Don’t allow your staff to answer the phone in a rushed, distracted, bored or impatient manner, or while still carrying on a conversation with someone else. All are unprofessional and make your practice look bad.
  • Don’t rely too much on technology. Try to have a real person be your callers’ first point of contact with your practice whenever possible.

Nathan Bradshaw

Nathan Bradshaw is a health enthusiast, talented author, celebrated pod caster and a poet who is now the co-editor and imaginative contributor of health fuel with a background in collaborative care networks and artificial intelligence. Nathan Bradshaw works from a creative wellspring that shows no signs of running dry.