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Cippy Seidler of Banner Health discusses self-service innovations in healthcare

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Kindra Cooper
01/14/2019

patient experience

Self-service sometimes gets a bad rap as a cost-cutting schtick companies use to stiff customers on providing actual, human-to-human service with a live agent.

Technology companies like Dropbox and Squarespace are declarative about not offering phone support expressly for the customer’s convenience, claiming that the types of queries they receive are best handled online, where customers can share web activity and upload multimedia files.

Done right, self-service in the healthcare industry can be a time-saving, headache-averting boon to customers and employees. For Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country, investing in self service was essential to its rebranding as a customer-centric organization.

“Banner really had to reinvent itself in the last two years and be about making the customer absolutely at the forefront,” says Cippy Seidler, who heads up the Consumer Care Center at Banner Health. The company was facing intense competition from other nonprofits who had rebranded with a patient-first philosophy based on human connection and storytelling. 

The first step was to introduce a natural language IVR that allows inbound callers to be patched through directly to a patient’s room rather than having to go through an operator - which shaved call volume by up to 25 percent. The IVR can also route calls from parents straight to a nurse’s voice badge so they can get up-to-the-minute progress reports on a baby in the natal care unit. Just from doing that alone, Seidler was able to upgrade job responsibilities and pay scales for staff on the switchboard team, appointing them to more of a consolatory, caregiver-type of role to help customers with “bigger concerns.”

“Self-service can work in your favor to drive employee engagements,” says Seidler, who is slated to speak at CCW Australia in Queensland this February.

A few days prior, a stricken woman called Banner Health. She’d heard her mother had been hospitalized, but she didn’t know where.

“She was absolutely petrified, totally frightened,” Seidler says. “So she got [on the phone with] one of our agents who now has time to empathize with her and help her feel more comfortable.” It turned out the caller’s mother had not been admitted to any hospital in the Banner Health network.

“Our agent was calling around to some of the larger health centers in our area and found the patient at a competitor’s hospital, and was able to get the patient connected there.”

Industry wisdom holds that when agents can offload rote administrative tasks, average handle time often goes up instead of down because agents deliver a more personalized experience to each customer, which Seidler found to be the case at her contact center.

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“Now they have to really be engaged and think and be able to use more tools knowledge-wise, so they’re pretty happy about that.”

Banner Health introduced other self-service tools that allow customers to self-schedule appointments with physicians, register for classes and pay bills online, and designing a mobile app so in-patients could choose their meals through an app. “That’s made a big difference,” Seidler says. “When people get a link directly to pay their bill, they’re more likely to pay the bill versus waiting for a hard copy.”

When businesses pursue self-service as a cost-saving tactic and it’s a boardroom discussion rather than an experience design one, “they miss all of the steps of what finding out what self-service options their customers actually would like.”

“Everything that we’ve implemented are things our customers have asked us for, either through focus groups, feedback sessions or surveys,” Seidler continues.

Seidler recently launched a social media team to handle customer support, recognizing that the majority of digital netizens prefer the immediacy of online platforms. It vastly reduced call volume at a call center that fields around 4.2 million calls per year and handles emergency notifications 24/7; but representatives are now spending more time on the phone with each customer, Seidler says. With self-service tools squaring away administrative tasks, agents are free to handle “bigger, non-clinical concerns.”

With healthcare being a service industry, there are certain customer care functions that can’t be relegated to self-service channels - like the Banner health phone helpline staffed by registered nurses. At the surface level, having nurses staff the phones sounds expensive, but the nurses play an important role in advising patients whether to visit the emergency room, seek urgent care or simply book an appointment with their primary care provider, thereby funneling customers towards the right resources.

Aside from benefitting the customer, self-service tools have helped staff economize on the backend as well. Rafts of paperwork were replaced by manual data entry when a customer called the contact center asking to sign up for a class or see a physician. Now, the team simply sifts through spreadsheets that are auto-populated each time a customer fills out an electronic form online.

In 2014, staff began searching for ways to increase communication efficiency to overcome inconsistent procedures, rising costs and a cumbersome code alert process where a nurse had to go through an operator to report an emergency. Nurses sometimes had to leave a patient to call an operator to launch a code blue (an emergency situation when a patient is under cardiac arrest). The operator then had to write down the information such as the patient’s name and room number and initiate an overhead page, losing precious time in the process.

Seidler’s team implemented a clinical alerting solution that allowed nurses to push a button at the patient’s bedside, and the operator has all the necessary details to alert a team of resuscitators to respond.

After the initial rollout was a success, Banner expanded the solution to the NICU to manage alerts from baby monitors. As soon as the system detects changes in vital signs, it sends an alert message to the assigned nurse’s voice badge. Nurses no longer need to physically monitor vitals; the entire process is automated.

In addition to offering customers the luxury of choice, Seidler says that self-service portals empower the customer to control their patient experience. “Consumers need to feel that they are in command of their communication and activities.”

Catch Cippy Seidler at CCW Australia from February 28-March 1, where she will present Customer Contact in Healthcare: Exploring the Unique Self- Service Transformation, Social Media Adoption and Staff Development in Banner Health’s Customer Contact Centre.’

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