Running a medical practice is a demanding endeavor that requires a seamless connection between front office staff, clinicians and back-office operations. It can sometimes be difficult for a medical practice to juggle all the tasks needed to keep daily operations running smoothly, especially while fielding incoming calls. For practices that need extra help manning the phone lines (and possibly improving patient engagement) medical answering services offer a potential solution.
What is a medical answering service?
Geared toward the healthcare industry, medical answering services offer secure management of a medical practice's phone lines in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). They also convey the appearance to your patients that it is an in-house receptionist who is answering their phone call.
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Medical answering services can perform a range of tasks. It can be as simple as a live receptionist taking down specific information and passing it along to relevant parties or allowing callers to set appointments. You can also use an answering service to call patients and remind them when they have an upcoming appointment.
Medical answering services vary in what they offer, but many include the following core features:
- Live answering: Generally available 24/7, a live receptionist answers incoming calls. They may be able to answer patient questions if you provide the service with a list of FAQs and scripted answers.
- Message taking: Message-taking services capture information and then forward messages to the relevant parties at the medical practice.
- After-hours answering: When the practice is closed, a live receptionist can respond to incoming calls and forward messages to providers and staff.
- Overflow call answering: If your practice experiences spikes in call volume, rather than getting a busy signal when patients try to reach your practice, the answering service will have a live receptionist available who can speak with callers.
- Appointment setting: Answering service receptionists can use a medical practice's calendar to set appointments for callers. Some services offer insurance eligibility verification services.
- Appointment reminders: Many medical answering services can remind patients of upcoming appointments. This feature can reduce cancellations and no-shows.
- Payment processing: Some medical answering services accept debit card and credit card payments over the phone so patients can pay their copayments or outstanding balances.
- Secure messenger: Some medical answering services offer a HIPAA-compliant messenger service that allows receptionists or medical practice staff to securely text patients. These messengers are typically available through a mobile application.
- Call recording: Medical answering services can record calls and archive them for later access and review.
Generally, a medical practice can select the services they require, which – along with call volume – can influence the ultimate price that the answering service charges.
Do you need a medical answering service?
If you're unsure whether you should manage incoming calls in-house or outsource it to a medical answering service, step back for a moment and ask yourself a few questions. These questions will help you identify whether it is worthwhile to hire a medical answering service and if it would improve the way your medical practice interacts with patients on a daily basis.
- Am I missing calls? Missing calls is one of the most obvious reasons to forward your phone lines to a medical answering service. If your staff is busy with other tasks and unable to reach the phone, a live receptionist can make sure your callers are taken care of and the messages are passed on to you quickly and accurately.
- Are patients canceling or not showing up to appointments? Medical practices often must contend with appointment cancellations and no-shows. Practice management software often includes appointment-reminder features, but medical answering services are another layer to ensure your patients receive a reminder about their upcoming visit.
- Do I receive a lot of after-hours calls? Most medical practices aren't open around the clock, but patients still call in to ask questions or set appointments. Medical answering services can handle after-hours calls and help improve your practice's customer engagement.
- Does my call volume unexpectedly spike? If you ever have unexpected spikes in call volume, some of your patients might have difficulty getting through to your front office. By hiring a medical answering service to handle overflow calls, all of the calls placed to your office are answered – even at the busiest times.
Can a bad medical answering service hurt your medical practice?
At worst, a bad medical answering service that doesn't abide by HIPAA-compliant practices can cause data breaches or leave sensitive information unsecured, leading to HIPAA violations and potential consequences for your medical practice. Even when that isn't the case, a bad service could harm your practice's brand, with representatives who are rude and/or who are unresponsive to callers.
It's not just important to test the security and customer service quality of an answering service, though. You should also find out as much as possible about the answering service's infrastructure. For instance, what kind of uptime can you expect? Does the answering service have redundancy in place in case it is affected by blackouts or natural disasters? If you're going to pay for a medical answering service, you need to know that your service won't be interrupted.
The best medical answering services are upfront about their services, pricing, fees, and terms and conditions. Request all of this in writing and thoroughly review it before you decide whether to partner with the answering service or not. If possible, have an attorney review the contract. Obtaining a written document with these details will help both you and the medical answering service maintain a mutually beneficial partnership moving forward.
What are the unique elements of a medical answering service?
Medical answering services offer some unique aspects that answering services focused on other industries do not provide. One of the most obvious is security, which needs to be, at a minimum, in compliance with HIPAA and HITECH standards. This means staff are trained regularly, callers are informed how their personal data will be used, and data is secured by encryption and other means. Medical answering services are required to abide by HIPAA, too, just like other healthcare organizations.
Some medical answering services and healthcare IT companies offer integrations with leading electronic medical records (EMR) systems and practice management software. These integrations include features such as saving audio recordings and messages directly in the EMR system and practice management software, or displaying a patient's chart when they call the practice.
How much does a medical answering service cost?
Answering services range in cost significantly; prices largely depend on call volume and the types of services you require. Generally, you should expect to pay between 75 cents and $1.25 per minute. Buying a larger package of minutes each month often drives down the per-minute cost.
Some answering services charge additional fees such as setup fees, overages and holiday fees that drive up the cost.
Scrutinize how answering services calculate call time. The best medical answering services calculate call time from second to second, but many round to the nearest sixth second. In other words, for a 1-minute and 7-second call, the answering service would charge you 1 minute and 12 seconds.
Some answering services round up even more, which can drive up costs and cause you to incur overage fees. Inquire about how call time is recorded and which increments the company uses. Ideally, look for a medical answering service that calculates call time in 1-second increments.
Some medical answering services offer free trials, so you can test the quality of their service for a limited time (a week or two) before making a purchasing decision. Take advantage of the limited trials, because it is important to know the level of service that you – and your patients – will receive from an answering service. After all, your relationship with your customers is on the line. For a closer look at some of the best answering services out there, see our best picks.
Medical answering services aren't a necessity for every medical practice, but they can help busy offices run more efficiently. Medical practices can rely on a good medical answering service to cut costs or enable investment elsewhere, or these service can serve as a backup for after hours or when overflow calls need to be taken.
If you need help managing your phone lines, setting appointments and following up with your patients, a medical answering service might be right for you.