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As the responsibilities of doctors, physicians, and hospitals have grown, the medical field is turning to answering services to handle critical communication channels. At the fraction of the cost of building a team to manage calls 24/7/365, healthcare organizations partner with professional teams to provide timely and effective patient attentiveness. From answering patient calls to scheduling appointments and providing reminders, medical answering services accomplish what can seem impossible to practices also needing to care for the patients sitting right in front of them.

While many healthcare professionals may feel well equipped to handle calls during office hours, they may have subpar processes to manage any level of call volume after hours or during holidays. And what happens when calls come flooding in during the day? Long holds and frustrated patients are a common result of inadequate answering support.

Rather than overburdening office staff with tasks that take them away from patient care, many medical practices turn to answering services to streamline these operations and free their employees to focus on providing an unmatched experience.

Ultimately, an answering service empowers you to offer a consistently-high level of service and improve your bottom line along the way. How do answering services deliver these benefits? To get the answers to these questions, read on! 

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See how a Medical Answering Service can help your practice grow with our free guide.

Table of Contents

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1. How Do Medical Answering Services Work?

A doctor's answering service answers patient calls on your behalf, either when you’re unable to take calls during peak hours, when your practice is closed or at all hours of the day and night. When a patient calls your telephone number, the call is automatically rerouted to your answering service, where a trained agent will answer the phone on your behalf. Depending on the nature of the call, the agent will answer common questions or transfer calls to your staff as needed, taking detailed notes along the way. How each kind of call is handled depends on your practice and your needs.

Your answering service partner will work with you to define a proper call workflow to ensure your patients are taken care of, while ensuring you get the information you need. Your partner’s documented onboarding process will outline how you’ll come to the ideal process, including how they will communicate with you and your staff. If an agent needs to take a message, you may prefer they deliver it to you through an encrypted text message or email, or through your answering service’s web portal. This is just one example of how you’ll work together to choose the optimal process.

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Your answering service partner will work with you to define a proper call workflow to ensure your patients are taken care of, while ensuring you get the information you need.

Of course, handling medical emergencies is a key component of working with an answering service. Emergencies don’t occur on a schedule – they rarely come up during your working hours. Additionally, your patients might not know what constitutes a true emergency. Though they’re familiar with general protocol, your doctor's answering service should follow your guidelines for when a patient can wait until morning, when they should be connected to an on-call physician and when they should call 911.

The key to successful onboarding is your partner’s investment in understanding your business needs and unique processes. As such, the best answering services will take a few days to train its agents on your practice.

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2. Medical Answering Services: Beyond Answering Calls

Doctor's answering providers often offer many high value-add services beyond simply answering patient calls. For instance, appointment scheduling keeps your staff free of administrative tasks, and reminder services help you minimize no-shows. Some partners even offer nurse triage services to handle less-pressing medical needs.


Appointment Scheduling and Reminders

In the healthcare field, patients may call hoping to schedule same- or next-day appointments. They may be anxious to see a physician immediately, and have planned to call you the second your office opens. An answering service can take the stress of scheduling an antsy patient off of your plate, scheduling the patient on your behalf.

Automated appointment reminder services ensure that your patients don’t forget about their appointments and show up when they’re scheduled. Not only will you minimize no-shows and keep your schedule full, you’ll also increase your operational efficiency by eliminating the time your employees spend on these tasks and the expense of sending mail reminders. Ultimately, more effective appointment reminders will improve your practice’s performance and profitability.

Methods of appointment reminders include:

  • Text Message Reminders – Studies show that patients’ most-preferred method of appointment are through text messages. You’ll communicate with your practice in line with patient preferences, and you’ll often generate quicker and better confirmation results.

  • Email Reminders – The second most-preferred form of appointment reminders, you can send emails with your practice’s own branding. Your patients can confirm their appointment by simply clicking a link in the emails, and their confirmation is automatically updated in your web portal.

  • Smartphone App Reminders – With a reminder application for iPhone and Android devices, you patients can receive push notifications on their smartphones reminding them of their upcoming appointments. They can even add their appointment directly to their phone’s calendar.

  • Telephone Reminders – Provide custom, articulate and professionally-recorded messages to your patients. Your answering service may even be able to record messages in multiple languages to meet your patients’ needs.

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Automated appointment reminder services ensure that your patients don’t forget about their appointments and show up when they’re scheduled.

Simply upload a list of your patients’ names and information into your answering service’s appointment portal and choose which method of contact your patients prefer. The portal also gives you real-time visibility into which patients have confirmed their appointments and who may need to reschedule. You can even produce reports that show the daily schedule of every staff member, allowing you to adjust your calendar and fill canceled appointments as needed.


Nurse Triage Services

Some answering service partners that specialize in supporting medical offices offer 24/7 nurse triage support. Physicians, practitioners and health systems can leverage triage answering services to provide patients immediate access to URAC-accredited nurses who deliver professional medical advice.

Triage nurses first determine your patient’s needs. They’ll then follow your customized administrative protocol. If the patient’s needs are critical, the nurse will connect them directly to one of your nurses or physicians. They can also forward messages to doctors if a patient should also consult a physician. Finally, you’ll then be able to review daily triage call reports through the client practice portal, email or fax to assess the triage call volume and nature of your patients’ needs.

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3. Can an Answering Service Support Your Unique Practice?

Answering services need to be adaptable to the unique needs of each medical and healthcare provider. Yet, some answering providers are rigid and may be unfit to support your practice. There are certainly partners built to meet individual businesses’ needs, however. What are some specific signs that an answering service will be able to support your needs?


Unbiased Recognition of Excellence

One of the best and easiest ways to determine if a doctor's answering service can meet your quality standards is to check if they’ve received the ATSI Award of Excellence. The coveted designation is given to tested services as part of a secret shopper program. Independent judges from the Association of TeleServices International (ATSI) evaluate answering services over the course of six months based on their courtesy, response time, accuracy and service provided to their clients. Only the top-scoring providers receive this designation.


Software Integration

Some healthcare practices may need to integrate their practice management software with their answering service’s web portal. In the call center industry, clients have pushed for better CRM integration to optimize data access and the ease of analysis. Medical practices specifically have needed such integration for seminar and class registration. If you have such a requirement, you want to make sure that a prospective partner can integrate with your software platform.


Information Retrieval

Depending on the size of your practice and how many stakeholders need access to call data, you need an answering service that allows you to control how you gather information. The most effective means of such a process is through a comprehensive web portal. These applications allow your stakeholders to retrieve messages from any device, update your on-call schedules, view and update contact information, run detailed reports and much more. Who you grant access to this information is simply up to you and your needs.

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4. Finding a HIPAA Compliant Answering Service

To say that it’s critical for your medical answering service comply with HIPAA regulations is not news. But not all answering services are HIPAA compliant. Healthcare answering services worth partnering with take extra measures to safeguard your patients’ Protected Health Information (PHI).

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Medical answering services worth partnering with take extra measures to safeguard your patients’ Protected Health Information (PHI).

Legal Requirements

How your partner stores information and communicates critical data to your practice is an important differentiator. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, if you (the covered entity) engage an answering service (the business associate) to conduct health care activities and functions, you must have a written business associate contract or other arrangement that establishes specifically what your answering service has been engaged to perform. It also requires your answering partner to “comply with the Rules’ requirements to protect the privacy and security of protected health information.” An answering service is “directly liable for compliance with certain provisions of the HIPAA Rules.”


The Importance of HIPPA Compliant Answering Service Software

In order for you and your partner to maintain seamless operations, you need a web portal to access real-time data. Especially because that data may include PHI, the portal must include security measures that keep patient information safe. Any unprotected message that contains PHI is a liability to your practice. Whether a HIPAA data breach or leak, the impending fines and loss of credibility are serious consequences.

Your data isn’t just at risk during transmission, either. Data at rest – digital information that’s simply being stored on a drive or in the cloud – is equally susceptible to loss or theft. Whether databases, spreadsheets, archives or off-site backups, data at rest must be encrypted. When your answering service has this information within their control, they must take the same measures you do to protect patient data. Make sure your partner’s website portal has an Extended Validation Certificate, an extra level of encryption that verifies that it’s controlled by a legal entity.

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5. Common Problems with Medical Answering Services

Considering the stakes, finding a formidable answering service partner can stressful. You need a partner that can provide at least the same level of quality that your own staff can provide. And as the importance of the patient experience grows, you can’t afford to work with a subpar partner. After all, health insurance providers may downgrade your practice if your patients report any less-than-desirable experiences.

What characteristics are indicative of a subpar partnership that may lead to such patient experiences? What may be a sign that you’ll have your own issues with an answering service?


Inadequate Communication

Patients want and need to address their health concerns as quickly as possible. When they call, they want to know that their problems will be addressed in short order. How will they feel if their call isn’t answered quickly or completely? How will they feel if an agent struggles to understand their problem and act accordingly? How will they feel if they don’t hear back from you because their message never reaches the right person?

Quality communication is imperative to upholding an excellent patient experience. Without it, you risk losing patients and tarnishing your reputation. You need a partner that can guarantee answering patient calls within a specified number of rings and can give you immediate access to messages.

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Quality communication is imperative to upholding an excellent patient experience.

Rushed Onboarding

It takes time to learn your specific needs and devise the most-suitable workflows. But too often, medical practices don’t realize how rushed onboarding impacts their business until it’s too late. Your partner needs to involve you in the onboarding process to ensure that your needs are met. Without you, how can an answering service know what your patients need from you? A rushed onboarding process is also a common sign that a partner isn’t spending enough time training their agents. Speaking of which...


Mediocre (or Nonexistent) Training

Especially in the medical field, proper training is a must. The answering service industry is known for having a high employee turnover rate, which can compromise a partner’s ability to maintain a high-quality call experience. A bulk of their training covers baseline phone etiquette and professionalism, but working in the healthcare space requires extra, specific attention.

If answering agents aren’t trained on HIPAA compliance and patient confidentiality, they’re a liability to your practice. And as mentioned above, working with medical practices and hospitals requires answering services to train its employees on assessing what situations are true emergencies.


Limited Support

While your baseline need is to have a partner that can answer patients calls, chances are you need far more support to adequately meet your patients’ needs. From thorough documentation and call recording to appointment scheduling and reminders or even nurse triage, a valuable answering service offers many solutions that streamline your practice. Don’t select a provider until you understand all of their services and assess how your partnership will impact your day-to-day operations and profitability.

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6. Factors that Affect the Pricing of Medical Answering Services

The pricing of doctor's answering services is dependent on a number of variables and can change based on the kind of plan you choose. The biggest differences come from choosing per-minute or per-call billing.

Per-call pricing is critically-dependent on how an answering services defines a “call.” A provider may charge the same rate for calls when someone dials the wrong number or immediately hangs up. These calls don’t provide any value to your practice, but they’ll cost you just the same as when a patient is actually helped. Some practices may even lump text messages and emails into the “call” category.

Time-based pricing reflects the actual time your answering service spends supporting your business. This time may cover all of answering calls, placing calls, sending messages and more. It’s important to note that if a provider charges strictly for the time they spend on the phone, their per-minute rate will likely be more expensive – accommodating for the additional support they provide when they’re not talking to a patient.

The value-add support a medical answering service can provide also impacts your cost. Appointment reminders, enhanced reporting and HIPAA-compliant storage and text messaging may all increase your total cost. Some providers will also charge for answering calls during holidays.


Common Time-Based Plans

Answering service pricing covers a large range of call volume needs to fit within your practice’s expectations. Though every medical answering service is unique, the below rates reflect general pricing for each range of call time:

  • Pay-as-you-go - Suitable for a practice with very low call volume. Typically includes a flat monthly fee and per-call charge – $30/month, plus $1.25/min.

  • 100-150 minutes - Pricing is charged at monthly rate, typically between $100 and $250, plus fees for supplemental services and additional minutes used.

  • 200-250 minutes- Pricing is charged at monthly rate, typically between $250 and $399, plus fees for supplemental services and additional minutes used.

  • 500 minutes- Pricing is charged at monthly rate, typically between $449 and $1,000, plus fees for supplemental services and additional minutes used. This plan tends to provide the best value plan for practices or hospitals with larger call volumes.

  • Custom Plans- If your hospital or practice typically receives more than 500 minutes of calls each, you’ll likely need a custom plan to maximize your value.

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7. How to Choose the Right Medical Answering Service

Because the medical field spends a great amount of time handling patient communication, many answering services have adopted to meet its unique needs. With many partners to choose from, how do you know you’ll choose the right one for your practice?

First and foremost, you need to determine what fundamental solutions you must have and which additional benefits may be worth the added cost. Ultimately, the best-fitting answering service adds great value to your practice. Beyond simply answering your patients’ calls, they’ll take detailed notes, screen calls to minimize staff interruption and manage urgent health situations.

Any answering service worth working with must understand the healthcare industry, but they also need to work to learn your needs and offer recommendations. The more you talk to a potential provider, the more insight you should have into how adaptable they will be to your requirements.

When you talk to possible partners, inquire about more than the services themselves. Learn how they can help you provide an unmatched patient experience, increase process efficiencies and maximize your bottom line. If a medical answering service won’t accomplish all three, they aren’t the right provider for your practice.

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