Handling Patient Enquiries

Introduction

There’s a saying in marketing that even the best ad or website can only do one thing: make the phone ring. Of course there are a few more options these days, like sending email or clicking on a link, but you get the point. Effective marketing motivates people to respond by taking an action. Generally today, that action is in the form of a phone or email enquiry.

How an enquiry is handled can make the critical difference between whether a potential patient becomes an actual patient—or not. Remember, today a patient can literally look for the care they need on the other side of the world to save money, even taking into account the cost of flights and lodging, giving rise to a thriving medical-tourism industry. But this flexibility also gives individuals many options and generates a competitive environment for healthcare providers.

Understandably, a potential patient will likely study several options and consequently, may send enquiries to different healthcare providers, perhaps even international providers. Thanks to the tremendous selection available on the internet, a patient can ‘shop’ for the care they are seeking. Ultimately they will choose only one provider. Will that provider be you?

An important factor in the patient decision-making process is how a patient feels about the way a provider responds to their initial enquiry. How was this enquiry handled? While it may be difficult to evaluate why a single patient chooses a particular healthcare supplier, when analyzing results over a number of enquiries, patterns emerge that explain why one provider converts 45% of enquiries into actual patients, while another provider barely converts 10% of leads into patients.

The process of converting enquiries into patient visits is actually very simple. By implementing a few fast and easy changes to procedures and practices, you will transform more patient leads into actual patients. Most, if not all healthcare providers are aware of at least some of these practices, but they frequently fail to implement them because:

  • They assume the practices are already in place, that everyone knows them.
  • They think that the key practices are so simple they just take them for granted. They assume they are obvious to everyone.
  • They assume their employees would simply implement them on their own initiative.

However, when it comes to patient enquiries, many healthcare providers just don’t follow best practices. And the leaders of these organizations often wonder why their employees spend precious time replying to patients’ enquiries, yet they seldom receive a reply.

This is good news for those who are committed to making every enquiry count. This is your opportunity to improve and gain a competitive advantage. By implementing best practices, you will improve your lead-to-patient conversion ratio. We have developed several practices and tips in this guide to help you on your journey to healthcare marketing success.

The Basics

Speed

When you receive a patient enquiry, remember that you’re not the only healthcare provider that this particular customer is contacting. You might not even be the first.

This is why response speed is critically important. For example, if you are the third provider the patient is contacting, but the first one he or she hears from, the patient will get the impression that you are giving them a much higher priority. When someone is considering a provider to take care of his or her health, this impression can be important. If you respond immediately, it is clear you are responsive. Responsiveness matters.

You can improve the speed of your responses by having standard informative answers for your most commonly requested procedures. Your administrative staff or anyone responding to enquiries should memorize these. In this way, there is no need to wait for a doctor or a dentist to reply to the average enquiry. Remember, at this stage, most patients are looking for approximate cost quotations, so that they can compare prices with those of other providers (who are also giving approximate numbers).

Make Sure the Communication is Received

Do what you you can to make sure that the communication to the patient actually got through. If you replied to a patient’s e-mail enquiry, and the e-mail contains his or her phone number, call the patient and politely ask the patient to confirm if they received your e-mail. If the patient calls you, but the call is cut off for some reason, call back immediately. If you call a patient but you don’t get an answer, leave a clear, business-like message with your contact information and call again the next day even if there wasn’t a response.

Just make sure that the calls or attempts to contact the patient are not intrusive. Also, take into account that your patient might be in a different country, so take the time differences into account so you don’t call at inappropriate hours.

Create a Tracking System

Make sure you have a system that keeps track of all enquires, how they were handled (and by who) and what the next step is. (Many organizations don’t even know the percentage of enquiries that become actual visits because they lack such a system.) It is essential to have a way of tracking your progress.

Keeping a record of enquiries allows anyone to step in and follow up with the patient. Many healthcare providers lose track of what the next step is because the receptionist or an assistant took a day off. Also, a tracking system allows you to avoid embarrassing mistakes like contacting the same patient twice in an hour or sending the same information twice, or worse, letting enquiries go unanswered until the person in charge returns. A good CRM (customer relationship management) program is very valuable in this process.

Pay Attention to the Details

It is inevitable that employees are going to be absent or unavailable some of the time, typically during weekends, holidays, lunch hours, etc. Healthcare clinics, by their nature, know they have to cover the bases during these periods because patient needs and emergencies can arise at any time, and so, in most cases, they create systems that can provide staff response 24/7.

Unfortunately, these systems often forget to include enquiry handling. If possible, you should make arrangements so that these patient enquires receive a quick response even during these times. Imagine the impression that a patient will have of your organization if you reply to his or her enquiry on a major weekend holiday.

Also, consider what happens if the line is busy when a patient calls? Does your system allow another person to pick up the call? Will the staff member who takes the call be able to help the caller or just put them on hold? Will the caller be able to leave a message? Or does the caller just get a busy signal that prompts him to dial the next healthcare provider on his list? How quickly will you respond to any message?

E-mail Systems

Medical tourism has increased the number of patients that are looking for healthcare options abroad. This means that many of the enquiries you’ll get will arrive via e-mail. Your e-mail response procedures should be adapted to handle e-mail enquiries quickly and effectively. For example, are e-mail enquiries checked only once per day? Or does the computer give one of your staff members a signal the moment an email arrives? The faster you respond to e-mail, the more confidence the sender is likely to have in your organization.

Of course, online communication shouldn’t be limited to e-mail. At the very least, you need a coherent and reassuring website. Optimally, you should allow people to contact you through the most popular social networks too. But that means you need to have those monitored regularly and respond to posts or messages quickly.

Are You Really Improving?

All organizations want to increase the ratio of visits to enquiries, but few of them actually know what their actual ratios are to begin with.

It’s very simple. Each month, you count the number of enquiries you get, and then, after a reasonable amount of time, (this may vary by procedure), you count the number of visits that resulted from those enquiries. Finally, you divide the number of visits by the number of enquiries in order to get your ratio. This process can be done each month simply and automatically using a computer spreadsheet, allowing you to compare and even graph the ratio from month to month so you can see the progress you are making, or if the number of visits to enquiries is dropping, you can identify problem areas and improve your procedures.

Making it Personal

Every person that contacts you has different values and expectations, and adjusting to them appropriately can make a good impression and make it easier for a patient to choose your organization over your competitors. For example, some people prefer to talk over the phone. They may ask questions that you have already answered in email or on your website, but they need to hear the sound of someone’s voice in order to be reassured they are making the best decision. Others prefer to write and receive e-mails. Some may have a dozen questions while others just want the price.

One tip that you can use to help you decide how best to respond is to respond using the same method they used to contact you. In a sense they are telling you how they like to communicate with that first contact. So, return a phone call with a phone call, an email with an email, etc.
Responsiveness

We have found that most patients will give a much higher consideration to healthcare providers that reply to their inquiries in less than 24 hours. In fact, many of them are delightfully surprised when they get the answer on the same day. And the most efficient organizations respond immediately.

Remember, because they are looking for healthcare, these people are not always feeling well. In many cases they have some degree of pain, and like every other human being, they just want to get rid of the pain and the discomfort as soon as possible.

A patient typically weighs at least two or three options (or sometimes more) before making a decision. However, the first one is the one that often impresses the most. In many cases, the second and third replies he gets only serve to confirm that the fastest reply he got is the best one. You might even say that the first to response sets the standard that the other responders will be compared to.

The Phone: A Longtime Trusted Ally

Most people work during business hours, so they may call you during their evening or even at night; times when the administration or reception areas of a healthcare center are often closed. Since potential patients may also be calling from other time zones, you need to note in your records when they called because that is likely to be a good time to reach them in the future. But sometimes people who have been putting off the search for medical care may suddenly have a crisis that reminds them they have to deal with a health issue immediately and are ready to act quickly at any time.

If you treat each enquiry as if it were a patient who walked through your door—with the same level of attention and immediate responsiveness—you will convert many more enquiries into visits.

This means that just leaving a single phone message in response, or sending a single email may not be enough. You may need to follow up, especially on phone calls, several times. After leaving a couple of messages within the first 24 hours, you no longer need to leave a message when you call, but it is better to continue to try to reach the enquirer than to assume they will call you back. As long as you are sensible about the time in their time zone you are calling, persistence expresses your professional follow through and also allows them to save on long-distance calls.

However, when you do speak to someone, it is good manners to introduce yourself and why you are calling and then to ask if this is a good time to speak? If it isn’t, then ask if there would be a better time and see if you can arrange to call back then.

Here are some additional tips that will make phone calls more effective.

  • Train your reception and administration to provide the basic information on the most commonly requested procedures you offer. Use a written script but have them learn it.
  • Set up your phone system so that if a call comes in while the receptionist or secretary is busy, someone else can detect it and pick it up. If this is not possible, at least arrange your system so that the call goes into a voicemail system. No caller should ever get a busy signal.
  • Have someone with a calm, relaxing, and reassuring voice record your voice mail messages. If possible, have different messages for different times (for example, one for lunch hours, one for night hours, and one for weekends).
  • If possible, include in your voice message the approximate time the patient will hear back from you.

Here are some examples of voice messages you can use in your phone system

When the call arrives during office hours but it goes into voicemail for some reason:

Hello. Thank you for contacting (name of your organization).

At the moment we are unable to answer your call because we’re helping patients. Please leave your name, phone number and the reason of your call and (name of the responder) will call you back you as soon as possible.

If this is an emergency, please call our emergency number (phone number) or visit the nearest emergency room.

When the call arrives after office hours:

Hello. Thank you for contacting (name of your organization).

We’re sorry we missed your call. Our normal office hours are from 9 to 6, Monday to Friday.

If this is an emergency, please call our emergency number (phone number) or visit the nearest emergency room. (Please note that the emergency number is not able to handle enquiries.)

Otherwise, please leave your name, phone number, and the reason for your call and we will call you back first thing in the morning.

When the call arrives on weekends:

Hello. Thank you for contacting (name of your organization).

We’re sorry we missed your call. Our administrative department is closed weekends.

If this is an emergency, please call our emergency number (phone number) or visit the nearest emergency room. (Please note that the emergency number is not able to handle enquiries.)

Otherwise, please leave your name, phone number and the reason for your call and we will call you back first thing Monday morning.

Remember to assign someone to check your phone messages regularly and reply to them preferably within 24 hours. If you are unable to reach the patient, leave a message. It is better not to leave medical information in voicemail. Medical information is considered private and the patient may not want others who have access to that voicemail account to know about it.

E-mail: The Tool of the Modern Patient

As indicated above, not all patients will call. In fact, more and more patients are using e-mail when contacting new healthcare providers. However, if an enquirer doesn’t get a response in 24 hours or less, he or she is unlikely to bother contacting you again, but rather will write the next competitor on the list. This is why replying to e-mail enquiries is so important. Here are a few tips that will help you improve your response time to e-mail enquiries

  • Have one e-mail address dedicated solely to enquirie
  • Check that e-mail address at least twice a day, but preferably more often.
  • Have a way of replying to e-mail enquiries that arrive after office hours. If this is not possible, at least set up an auto-reply system that informs the patient that you have received their enquiry and that you will contact them as soon as possible.
  • Include all the contact information for your organization in the replying e-mail, such as phone numbers, address, website, etc.
  • Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t send attachments. Mailing systems often interpret e-mails with attachments as spam and send them to the spam folder, which typically goes unnoticed.
  • If the information the patient requested isn’t readily available, inform the patient in your reply when that information will be available.
  • Unless it has to do with the procedure the patient is requesting, avoid sending all types of promotion or discount offers. Patients often interpret this as being only interested in money.
  • Keep the information in your reply simple and to the point.

Here is an example of a standard reply letter that your e-mail system can send if you’re not able to have people checking e-mail enquiries 24/7

Thank you for contacting (name of your organization).

You are receiving this auto response because our regular office hours are from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday through Friday. However, we will respond to your enquiry within the next 24 hours.

If this is an emergency, please call our emergency number (phone number) or visit the nearest emergency room. (Please note that the emergency number is not able to handle enquiries.)

Thank you very much again and we look forward to helping you get the healthcare you deserve.

(name of your organization & contact information)

Conclusion

By following these tips, you’ll be able to convert more enquiries (whether by phone or by e-mail) into visiting patients. As you can see, most of these practices are extremely easy and inexpensive to implement. The chances are you already have the necessary technology and systems that are needed in place and all you need to do is make some slight changes in order to improve your conversion rate.

The whole concept behind these practices is very simple: putting yourself in the shoes of the patient and understanding his or her expectations, and exceeding them.

To summarize:

  • Speed is of the essence. Getting back to your patient quickly can mean the difference between a visit to your organization or to your competitor.
  • The first person the patient contacts can make or break your organization’s image. Train your staff so that they can reply to the greatest number of enquiries possible without the need of a health professional. (Obviously, without committing your organization to terms that it can’t match or by giving information that only a health professional can give.)
  • Get your technical personnel to set up your phone and e-mail systems in a way that allows you to receive and reply to enquiries quickly and effectively.
  • Don’t forget that there is much more to the online world than an e-mail system. Make sure that your website is informative and allows patients to contact you easily. Also, remember your social networks (and handling enquiries received through them as well).
  • Keep records about all enquiries and track the progress you are making converting enquiries to visitors.
  • Test your phone response and email response procedures regularly by having someone pose as a potential patient. How quick was the response? How professional? How could it be done better?

If you need assistance with developing a strong marketing program for your healthcare organization, please contact one of the marketing professionals at The Goodness Company. We’ll show you how to attract more patient leads…and will help you convert more of those leads into patients.