Patient Access: Why is Easy Never Easy?

On Friday I had a chance to speak with someone who reads this blog.  He mentioned that my style of writing seemed a little edgy.  I appreciate that he chose such a polite word.

That same day, as I walked through the Detroit airport to my gate I saw a sign affixed to the wall pointing to a large room—Reflection was all it said. Since my flight was two hours late I popped my head into the room and thought about possibly reflecting on why my flight was late. The reflection room looked a lot like a chapel; probably was a chapel. Perhaps to keep the jihadists at bay management changed the name of the room. Edgy.

Improving the patient access experience.  When you read the word access, think communicate.

In every health system patients communicate—try to access the health system four different ways. Many, many people try all of those ways, hoping to find one that works, or at least one that is easy.

  • Online—that does not work unless all they want to do is read about the health system. Most health system websites are analogous to celebrities awarding each other plastic statuary; they simply sing their own praises.
  • Phone
  • Fax
  • Snail mail

A health system probably receives almost as many pieces of mail each day as it does phone calls. In addition, some health systems receive a similar number of faxes daily. That same health system likely had sixty percent of its stakeholders go to the health system’s website before they called. That is a lot of communicating, or not communicating as it turns out.

I have been speaking with the stakeholders of one such health system, speaking with them to try to learn why they choose so many different ways to contact their health system. I also spoke with employees of the health system to get their perspective about why their stakeholders use so many different ways to contact the health system, and trying to understand why they did not just pick up the phone and call them.

The stakeholders gave me one answer, and the employees gave me another. What was quickly apparent is that the employees did not know why the stakeholders used so many different ways to contact them.

When I asked the stakeholders, instead of calling, why do you mail, fax, and try to meet your needs online? I received several explanations. And when I laid out the explanations and tried to find a common theme, one thing stood out—doing anything other than calling was easier.

Doing anything other than calling was easier. Now, let’s give this a moment’s thought. Writing a letter, stuffing the letter into an envelope, and driving to the post office to buy a stamp is easier than picking up the phone. The same logic held about sending a fax—it was easier than calling.

This suggests one of two things; sending letters and faxes has gotten a lot easier since the last time I wrote a letter, or…calling a health system to meet your needs is akin to calling your payer or mobile phone company.

Why take fifteen minutes to type up a fax and send it rather than place a three-minute phone call? Why indeed? For starters, there are no three-minute phone calls. Three minutes may be how much time the caller can expect to be placed on hold. And then their call is transferred, and then they are placed on hold again.

Not easy. No assurance that your needs are met.

Send a letter or a fax and you have an audit trail. A confirmation of the fax being sent. A copy of what was sent. The stakeholder takes the monkey off their back and puts the monkey, puts the required action on the back of the health system.

It costs a lot to respond to all of those faxes and letters. It costs twice as much when those faxes and letters are sent to verify the outcome of phone calls.

If your patients are spending their time looking for ways to avoid calling your health system maybe it is time to figure out why people find it so difficult to call.

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