“I don’t want to bother you. I just want to spend five minutes talking to you. I think it might help me feel better.”
When Maggie Ozan Rafferty, chief experience officer at Blessing Health System, thinks about all the calls she’s gotten over the last few months during COVID-19, that’s the one that stuck out to her the most.
Another thing that’s stuck out to her: She’s usually not the one answering the phone. But with the pandemic, she’s helping as much as she can, taking shifts for upwards of nine hours a day to help pitch in.
Blessing Health System in Illinois developed an outbound call center about a year and a half ago. Staffed by eight nurses, the phone was ringing from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
But with COVID-19, the call center has changed. Now, it mostly functions as an inbound call center, staffed by 14 nurses who take calls 24/7. Currently, they average 300 calls per day, from people not just in Illinois, but in Missouri and Iowa, too.
“We were fortunate that we already had the technology for our call center,” Ozan Rafferty says. “Since COVID-19, we’ve done new training sessions and changed our scripts, too. We’re functioning more like a screening hotline.”
Here’s what the majority of people call about:
- People who say they aren’t feeling well and want to get tested
- Callers who want to know how many people in their area have COVID-19
- People want to learn more about how Blessing Health System is preparing
- Callers who want to know more about COVID-19 symptoms
- People have questions on the hospital’s visitation policy
“There’s a lot of stress out there and all different types of information,” Ozan Rafferty says. “But we want to be the ones who are providing the most recent information. Through our call center, we’re showing our community that we’re here for them.”
According to Kathy Divis, president of Greystone.Net, “The call center staff is an extension of the clinical staff, and are on the frontlines of the fight too, giving out public information about COVID-19. And suddenly, hospital call centers across the U.S. are thrust into an untenable situation, in terms of call volume, as both the ’worried well’ and ‘very sick’ call for information and services."
During COVID-19, here are a few ways to boost your call center:
Hire people with a “phone-side” manner: Ozan Rafferty says that speaking on the phone is an art. People picking up the phone at Blessing Health System are nurses, who’ve already developed a bedside manner. They apply this demeanor on the phone line. “You want people who have clinical expertise with the ability to comfort someone and articulate information,” Ozan Rafferty says. “You need someone comfortable explaining to a caller why they can’t come to visit their grandmother in the hospital right now.” And here’s a pro tip from Divis that comes in especially handy now: “Interview potential recruits on the telephone first so you have an accurate sense of his or her telephone style, empathy and tone.”
Get the right collaboration tool for your team: At Blessing Health System, some staffers are taking calls at the hospital, while others are taking calls from home. This is a tricky situation, but one tool that’s helped everyone stay connected is Microsoft Teams. “Our leaders from care coordination update with it with real-time information and there’s also a place where call center employees can ask questions to their colleagues,” Ozan Rafferty says. “It helps everyone stay connected.”
Consistent information is key: Jessica Walker, founder and CEO of Care Sherpa, says a big issue that hospital call centers face is closing the information gap. “Call centers need to map out a plan for getting the correct regional, geographic and timely information to their audience,” Walker says. “This information might come from your hospital’s website or publicly available resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. Whatever it is — make sure it’s consistent messaging.”