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How AI in the Call Center Can Improve Staff, Patient Experience

AI on call center lines can automate simpler tasks, like appointment scheduling, leaving staff to handle more complex queries and streamlining the patient experience.

For a certain patient population, the appointment scheduling process needs to look a bit like booking a flight. They know where they want to go, which service they need, and which clinician they want to see. And it makes no sense for those patients to jump through the hoops of the call center to do that.

That’s the hope for Ohio Gastroenterology, which recently implemented an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot from Orbita to act as a virtual assistant on the practice’s call lines. The virtual assistant is suitable for patients who know that they need to book an endoscopy, that they want to go to a specific Ohio Gastro location, and who are sure about which day of the week works well for them.

And in the end, Bruce Hennessy, MD, Ohio Gastroenterology’s managing partner, said this should significantly lower call volumes, a tricky problem the organization has been dealing with for years.

“We've always had a large call volume, but coming out of the pandemic, the call volume was significantly higher because there were a lot of questions that we didn't have prior to the pandemic regarding the safety of the procedures, the safety of the respiratory environment, the risk of developing COVID, or getting COVID testing done beforehand,” Hennessy told PatientEngagementHIT in an interview.

Call volumes reached a boiling point of 40,000 calls a month, Hennessy added, which far exceeded what the organization’s call center staff could handle. That made for a bad experience for everyone.

On the patient side, it meant people got tangled in a web of phone tag, trying to get ahold of the clinic for a litany of needs. For patients looking to answer a technical or logistical question—scheduling an appointment, getting a prescription refill, even finding parking—it was an arduous process.

And for patients looking for more information, like those with prior authorization holdups or with complex clinical questions, it felt like call center staff couldn’t fully answer their questions. Staff members faced limits on how long they could spend with each caller, and they often had to pass patients onto another expert instead of solving that patient’s problem.

Hennessy said it made the call center into something akin to an answering machine.

The lack of meaningful patient interactions also had an impact on the call center staff themselves.

“It's not as satisfactory to the employees,” Hennessy explained. “They want to have meaningful conversations. They want to get to know somebody on the phone. And they want to be able to be helpful.”

Ohio Gastro’s new system is set up to allow for those more meaningful conversations by easing up on the low-acuity patient calls, Hennessy explained, like appointment scheduling and patient intake.

Data shows that patients want these kinds of tools because self-scheduling is convenient. But separate studies have shown that self-scheduling is best when it is streamlined; patients don’t like when tools reroute them to a telephone call when they did not ask to speak to a human, for example. Having a tool that can reliably handle patient requests is key.

Ideally, patients at Ohio Gastro should be able to schedule appointments using the chatbot and even share some patient pre-registration information, like insurance cards and health history.

That means patients who use the chatbot will be able to show up on time for their appointments and head right into the exam room, not try to square some circle about when they should show up to fill out paperwork, Hennessy said.

Of course, patients don’t have to use the chatbot at all, even for appointment scheduling, Hennessy stressed. He explained that the tool is sensitive to voice commands and is set up to reroute a call or message if someone requests to speak with a human.

“It's not going to be one-size-fits-all,” Hennessy acknowledged. “It's not going to be the preferred method for every patient, but we do have populations now who are more comfortable working in that environment and we want them to be able to use those features.”

The idea is that there will be enough of a critical mass opting for the chatbot that Ohio Gastro’s call center staff can dedicate more time and energy to working with patients with complex logistical or clinical needs.

“If you try and answer all the calls for everyone with a human, you either have to have a very, very large call center or you have to limit the amount of time you can spend with the patient on the phone,” Hennessy pointed out. “What we'd like to do is increase the amount of time for the patients who really need to speak with a human and allow everybody else to participate with the practice in an automated format if they choose to.”

Hennessy said he envisions a future where anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of calls are handled in an automated fashion, meaning the rest are high-acuity calls that require a heavier touch.

And, ideally, that’s going to help staff members derive more meaning in their work.

“What we'd like is more experts in the call center,” Hennessy concluded. “If you have prior authorization issues, we want you to be able to talk to experts. It's hard to have experts when you have 50 or 100 people trying to answer phones with turnover, and it's very hard to become more specialized.”

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