In June, I attended the Healthcare Call Center Times Conference in Pittsburgh. It is always a well-attended event with great speakers and attendees of the highest caliber. As evidenced by the conference, healthcare is among the fastest-growing contact center verticals in the market. All the major vendors are in hot pursuit! Many of today’s healthcare organizations would put some well-established contact centers to shame with the level of sophistication they have achieved.
Healthcare as an industry has changed considerably in the last 10 years; many hospitals and physician private practices have been acquired and organized into “systems.” The systems continue to grow and seek efficiency opportunities by building contact centers that centralize functions such as billing, finance, scheduling, care coordination and nurse triage. For many, these efforts have been painful… with contact centers emerging by “default rather than by design” or by hastily moving various functions into the same space without careful consideration, defined requirements and diligent planning.
I’d like to share several trends I that I have seen emerging and some may surprise you!
Appointment of Chief Access Officer
One of the most exciting trends for me is the emergence of an executive-level position to oversee and provide governance to contact centers across the enterprise. The appointment of a Chief Access Officer or Chief Experience Officer, in many cases, has led to a single voice and vision for initiatives around access. This executive defines the vision for both growth and efficiency and facilitates clear paths to achieve those objectives.
The position often inherits challenges and obstacles at the operational and cross-functional levels. These may emerge after years of infighting about such things as who “owns” the customer/patient experience, who has authority over how practices handle centralized scheduling, how systems are configured, how performance is reported, what resources are requested and many other challenges. The Chief Access Officer has more on their plate than simply defining what access and the patient experience should look like; they must be able to operationalize it intelligently.
Nurse Triage in the Contact Center
Many healthcare contact centers now provide virtual front-office services to physician practices. The virtual front-office model has the contact center front-ending all calls to a practice or specialty service. This model works best when the contact center is able to actually fulfill caller requests rather than just act as an intermediary. For example, patients may have questions around symptoms or conditions they feel need attention. Rather than queue up a workflow via the EMR (Electronic Medical Record) or leave a voicemail (which delays a response to the caller) many centers have recognized the need for nurse triage within the contact center.
This option has been talked about for some time and increasingly more contact center operations are now including the nurse triage service. The model allows for more immediate assistance to the patient without depending on the availability of a nurse in the clinical environment.
Many nurse triage positions are being offered within a work-at-home model. This appeals to nurses that have grown tired of demands made on them within the traditional role; their skills are put to work in a less physically demanding environment. It is important, however, to consider legal issues related to nurse licensing requirements, particularly for those handling multistate service environments.
Shared Services/Business Support Group for Contact Center Support
To this trend I say, “It’s about time!” Many mainstream contact centers of any significant size have a shared services or business support group to provide contact center-specific support. Healthcare contact centers are growing not only in numbers but also in scale. Operations with hundreds of frontline agents handling millions of calls annually really benefit from this investment in operational infrastructure.
The mission of a shared services or business support group is to support enterprisewide contact centers in workforce and process optimization. This includes alignment to strategic objectives (vision, brand, growth and efficiency). The group is responsible for the management of contact center workforce optimization technologies, ACD (automatic call distribution) systems, and WFM (workforce management) systems and processes.
The shared services model provides for standardization of call quality systems and programs (recording and reporting systems), business analytics and performance metrics. This all takes place via collaboration with contact center leadership, operational support partners (e.g., IT, EMR) and internal partners to achieve enterprisewide access and customer/patient experience goals.
Shared services/business support business units continue to emerge and bring relief to contact center leaders that can now turn away from managing systems to focusing on managing and enhancing interactions and transactions. This eliminates the situation some contact center leaders have found themselves in… when IT controls the systems and all requests for reconfigurations (etc.) require opening a ticket; delays are inevitable for a condition that requires immediate response.
Hiring Leaders with Contact Center Experience Beyond Healthcare
Hiring contact center leaders with experience outside of healthcare is good news to me. For decades, many healthcare contact centers have been overseen by healthcare professionals who have struggled to master the intricacies and art of contact center management. Please don’t get me wrong. Many healthcare professionals have become effective contact center leaders, have learned what was required and deliver a great product.
In the past, the trend has been to require previous healthcare experience for any professional to be considered for a healthcare contact center leadership position. This appears to be changing as centers grow larger and become more complex. The recruitment of contact center management expertise from “outside” is increasingly popular. I believe this will bring new perspectives and skills that will work for the better.
Formalized Training, Learning and Performance
At the June conference, I spoke to many healthcare contact center leaders who were delighted to have “finally” gotten funding for dedicated training resources in their contact centers. Some had been “begging” for years! Many had been left with using the shadowing/side-by-side model along with the “best they could do” for job aids and reference material. This often resulted in inconsistent understanding and incorrect application of a skill. The addition of experts to contact center training initiatives (assuming targeted hiring of a skilled professional) improves frontline skills and enhances employee morale, engagement and retention.
Shhhhh… Stealth Trend
There is a current trend under the radar in most contact center environments, not just healthcare. The trend is union organizing. I find this popping up in lots of places recently. While not necessarily in contact centers, many frontline laborers feel that they are not being treated well.
The other day I read about workers at Whole Foods Market. A group of employees sent out a global letter to other store associates suggesting that “organizing” was the only way to stand up to the Amazon model of doing more with less. It was an interesting read. Then I read an article, “Uncanny Valley,” in this month’s Vanity Fair about the “gig economy.” You know… all those “platforms” (Uber, Lyft, Instacart, etc.) originating from Silicon Valley with the promise to workers of “be your own boss” and “set your own schedule.” Well, it appears that this “class of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws or eligible for benefits provided to the rest of the nation’s workforce” is beginning to take legal action. A pot is beginning to boil. When interviewed for the Vanity Fair article, a woman was asked the question, “What can we do about it?” She replied that the “only way forward for gig economy workers is to unionize.”
So I would say that contact centers here in the U.S. are very much targets for organizing, and healthcare is a prime target. The best way to navigate these interesting times is to treat your people well. You must provide a good, solid work environment where the front line gets what it needs in terms of training, management, rewards and recognition. The workforce in this economy wants more than a job; they want an experience!
A picture emerges when you look at these trends collectively and that is: Healthcare contact centers are gaining sophistication in their approach to building sustainable, scalable operational models. Industry growth and massive changes in what customers/patients want and expect are creating many opportunities for contact centers to continue to grow and become increasingly mission-critical, not to mention the incredible opportunities available for talented leaders.