The roll of call centres in the health system

Richard Abdy, membership engagement manager at The Forum, discusses how call centres have widened the scope and improved the work of customer contact within the healthcare sector

The technical capability to create large scale call centres was made available in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, early 1990s however that their adoption became widespread. For the health sector this evolution took some time to embrace, however there has always been an element of ‘Control Room’ presence. The modern health sector contact centre operates using the same tried and tested techniques and technologies that the early adopting private companies have used for years.

The healthcare system has always relied on telephony contact and through the increases in patient choice and the need to better manage demand, the important role that call centres play is becoming paramount. Ambulance services traditionally operated from control rooms, and along with reception facilities within GP surgeries and hospitals, would have been considered the bulk of telephony work undertaken within the sector. However an ageing population along with the ability to better treat many ailments and diseases and a rise in expectations from the public have placed unprecedented demand on the whole healthcare system. This has led to service transformations which have increasingly turned to call/contact centre environments for solutions.

The 14 ambulance services that cover the United Kingdom handled approximately 10 million 999 calls alone last year. With the implementation of the 111 service, replacing NHS Direct in England and the number being adopted into existing services elsewhere in the UK, calls into the NHS are at their highest ever volume. Increasingly the public are being targeted with advertising campaigns looking to promote the most appropriate healthcare for the needs which inevitably will further grow this volume of contact.

Cost effective resilience
Call centres, and more recently contact centres, have proven to be a cost-effective way of dealing with queries from customers. The 1990s witnessed the initial upsurge in the call centre as predominantly private sector companies looked for more cost-effective ways to handle queries from customers. Banks, insurance companies, travel agents and other retail organisations over the last 30 years have created large scale contact centres and closed inefficient branches with low footfall compared to overheads. Although slow to react initially, the health sector is now also at the forefront of call centre thinking.

Technology was the initial enabler to allow work to be centralised with better connectivity allowing multiple calls to be handled in the same location and data to be stored and transferred more effectively. As this technology has matured it has become more cost effective and therefore more widespread and importantly more robust with use and resilient.

It is this cost effectiveness and resilience that has enabled the health sector to join private sector organisations in benefitting from contact centre environments. Technology also opens the door for further enhancements like video calls that allow healthcare professionals to see as well as speak to patients negating the need to be seen physically.

However, Adrian Hawes, associate planning specialist with The Forum, also makes the valid point that at the same time there has to be an unerring focus on quality of care for the patient. Therefore the balance of how performance metrics are managed is also vital and this mirrors what we have seen happening in other contact centres where the focus has shifted (thankfully) away from hard metrics (e.g. AHT) to more qualitative measures of customer experience and call quality. Speed of service will of course always be a key driver and therefore right sizing and scheduling to meet demand are key drivers.

Adrian comments: “Whilst it is true that learning from the private sector has (and remains) important, I think we are seeing that there are many organisations in the private sector that would now benefit from looking at the approaches in some of the health service contact centres – and the diligence with which they have to plan, resource and manage and the consistency of performance they need to deliver. There are few industries that are under as much pressure as health.”

These changes have meant that methodologies developed primarily in the private sector have been adapted and embraced within the healthcare system. Workforce management systems now more accurately plan when staff need to work to match patient demand.

The 111 service
This is in line with private sector organisations and the Forum, champions of best practice and professional development in customer contact, acknowledged this when presenting Yorkshire Ambulance Service’s NHS 111 Planning Manager Wayne Deakin with a Planning Hero award in October 2016.

Wayne could take skills he learned in a private contact centre career and adapt them to implement a safe yet efficient and effective process for forecasting, planning and scheduling the 111 service.

Calls to the 111 service have increased since its inception to more than the higher acuity 999 service making the primary contact for non-urgent out of hours’ calls combined with 999 calls one of the largest collection of call centres in the UK, handling over 20 million calls per year.

There are a whole host of other services within the health sector that are delivered by telephony. Some are already delivered in a call centre environment like NHS Business Service Authority (NHSBSA), who deal with a variety of calls from European Health Insurance Card enquiries to pensions and prescription certificates. The NHSBSA, along with Yorkshire Ambulance Service, North East Ambulance Service and other private 111 providers, are active members of The Forum and have shared innovations through previous Customer Strategy & Planning conference’s as part of sharing best practice with each other and back to other healthcare organisations.

How is the industry’s leading customer contact conference looking to support healthcare organisations this year?
Whilst acknowledging and working with different sectors, best practice tends to lend itself to any environment. The Forum’s membership base is extremely diverse and it is that diversity that gives it a unique strength in discovering and sharing innovation. Through sharing of best practice at events organisations learn from one another and it is great to see how methodologies conceived in one industry are easily lifted and adopted. Likewise, there is an increasing cross fertilisation of skills as people move between industries.

This ‘full circle’ demonstrates how far healthcare call centres have come and the opportunities for the future are endless and paramount in delivering service in increasingly challenging financial positions and increasing service demand. Several hospitals have already centralised their telephony functions and others are looking at opportunities of multiskilling/sharing resources. Again, this demonstrates the desire to utilise call centres to make further service transformations.

Richard Abdy is the membership engagement manager at The Forum. Prior to joining the Forum, Richard worked for the NHS for seven years within the Ambulance sector and NHS Business Services Authority, following 12 years in private banking and telecommunication organisations.

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