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Inflation’s impact on healthcare switchboards and call centers

Hospitals struggle to retain switchboard and call center staff, a situation exacerbated by inflation. Here’s how Parlance is leveraging its call automation tech to help address these needs and improve the caller experience.

When it comes to contacting clinicians and patients, the hospital switchboard can be just as daunting to navigate as the maze of buildings and hallways on a hospital campus. Hospitals struggle to keep switchboard operator positions filled, a role that had a high turnover rate even before the pandemic. Inflation has only exacerbated the challenge for hospitals to fill these positions as valued staffers gravitate to higher paying jobs elsewhere in the hospital or other organizations.

Scott D’Entremont is the chief revenue officer with Parlance, an industry-agnostic tech company that’s found a particular need and niche for its speech-powered call management solution in healthcare organizations. The company is well matched with the need healthcare organizations are currently experiencing as they seek to balance automation with a more personal touch when managing call traffic to the switchboard.

Scott D’Entremont

“People are finding it challenging to stay fully staffed in order to process costs in the healthcare environment, particularly for people calling to make appointments and access healthcare or get in touch with patients or their caregivers,” D’Entremont said. “In both of those situations, more than ever, there seems to be significant staffing issues. Wage inflation is creating more problems for the organizations I’m talking to.”

For over 25 years, Parlance has been at the forefront of intelligent speech-powered technologies, delivering comprehensive call management solutions that bridge the gap between staffing limitations and patient demand. Expertise in the healthcare environment allows Parlance to deliver meaningful cost savings to health systems, cultivate a productive and stable environment in which operators and agents can best serve callers, and help hospitals and clinics to provide satisfying experiences to patients and employees alike. Parlance takes pains to not only understand the ways a health system’s different caller communities interact with a health system’s voice network, but also analyze end-to-end queries to a health system. The goal is to make the process of getting through to the desired recipient fast and easy.

D’Entremont said interest in Parlance solutions has increased since the start of the pandemic. 

“At this point, it is not only difficult to retain people, in some cases it’s difficult to recruit their replacements and to train them, only for these staff to leave. Our technology provides a kind of safety net. Health systems know that Parlance will provide the support they need to answer these calls.”

Another way in which Parlance helps healthcare organizations is by freeing up staff so they have the time to address more complex calls. It also eschews the interactive voice response (IVR) systems that provide menu options for callers that can lead to frustration, especially in stressful situations. By helping staff to offer a higher level of service, it reduces turnover because the switchboard operators don’t feel as stressed, they’re more engaged and they feel like they’re making a difference.

Parlance patient connector applications integrate with HL7 systems and instantly relieve the burden on operators, enabling callers to connect with loved ones faster, according to a recent whitepaper. At a time when switchboards were operating with reduced staff, Parlance eased the strain, not only connecting callers to loved ones, but also offering the option to talk to a nurse or provider about their recovery. This small change offered huge comfort to families who may otherwise have struggled to get health updates about their loved ones.

D’Entremont observed that its automation technology was especially useful as the pandemic took hold of the country because the traditional rules for visiting patients were upended. 

“What came up in Covid-19 was a major disturbance to regular hospital visits. People couldn’t visit their family members. So we helped people more easily get to caregivers. We added an extra dialog question at a lot of our hospitals: ‘Would you like to reach the patient or her caregiver?’ Because as much as they wanted to speak with their loved one, what they often wanted was an update on their condition. Since no in-person visits were allowed at that stage of the pandemic, they couldn’t get that information by stopping by the nurse’s station. People found that really helpful.”

He added: “The expertise to design and deliver the right balance of automation and live support for health systems, to humanize the experience, getting routine callers, people who know exactly what they want to the resource they need quickly, as well as have a better human experience for the other folks, the people who need to talk to a live person for complex support or empathy… That’s really what we feel our contribution is.”

One of the challenges health systems face is the steady drumbeat of consolidation. It requires companies like Parlance to be nimble enough to adapt and ensure their system can reliably keep pace with staff and department changes.

D’Entremont stressed that Parlance can easily adapt to change in ways that are nimbler and more effective than, say, a hospital’s IT department or rival vendors. A project that might take as many as six months for rival competitors often takes Parlance as little as 30-45 days to complete.

“A health system’s switchboard is handling calls that go to hundreds if not thousands of destinations and they’re all piling into one place. Parlance troubleshoots health system switchboards and untangles bottlenecks quickly and efficiently,” D’Entremont explained. “Parlance supports business optimization for healthcare organizations so they can save money as they recover from the pandemic. We deliver ROI in one to two months, so cost savings come about quickly.”

Hospitals are dealing with the strain of pandemic-induced costs, staff shortages exacerbated by inflation and supply chain uncertainties. The Parlance solution combines intelligent, speech-powered automation tools like natural language processing, AI and machine learning, with a proprietary Name Bank technology to help patients to access care without frustration, connect to loved ones and their caregivers with ease, reduce operator burden, and optimize switchboard operations so hospitals can operate more efficiently.

Photo: Jordi Mora Igual, Getty Images