Productivity and previous experience have been two “must-have” requirements for employees fielding preservice calls on scheduling, registration, and collections at Mercy Health in Cincinnati. Not any longer.

“Previous job profiles were driven on the technical aspects of the role and getting the patient on the schedule,” says Scott Farmer, executive director at Mercy Health.

The organization’s emphasis on customer service in all departments, including patient access, has changed that. It is not enough to get patients on the schedule and do it quickly. “Today, we’re more attentive in listening and responding to our patients’ needs,” Farmer explains.

Job requirements did not reflect this change in mindset. Hiring managers emphasized a certain number of years’ experience as a scheduler in a physician practice or hospital. Customer service was not mentioned at all.

“We really lacked what creates the experience for the caller,” Farmer says. Job descriptions also stipulated that employees were expected to take a certain number of calls per hour, with expertise in the organization’s scheduling system. “We can always train you to use systems and technology,” Farmer notes.

Customer service skills are a different story. As any patient access leader can attest, a simple inservice will not suffice if an employee lacks “people” skills. “We need to be hiring to those skills,” Farmer offers. One way to do this is to take more of a conversational approach to interviewing. Once candidates start talking off the cuff, their approach to dealing with customers becomes apparent.

“I really like to get past the canned answers,” Farmer says. “I can identify when people are connecting to what we are wanting to deliver.” Usually, it is pretty clear when a candidate is on the same wavelength. He or she tends to smile during the interview while relaxing visibly. “We are speaking the same language,” Farmer says. “They realize we are not trying to figure out ‘How many calls can you take in a day?’ but rather, ‘How dedicated are you to our patients?’

Some important questions to identify service-oriented applicants: Are they attentive? Do they exhibit clear communication skills? Can they show empathy? Do they really see helping patients as more than just a job?

“Patients are not calling to talk about the weather. They have a medical reason they are calling,” Farmer says. “We need to be honed into that first.” For a patient in distress of care, hearing “Sorry, the doctor is booked solid” or “There’s just nothing available” is an instant dissatisfier. Once the patient is upset, it is difficult to regain his or her trust. Such robotic, canned responses are no longer acceptable in patient access, Farmer notes. “Sometimes, those folks don’t understand that patients really have a need, and they need to get them into the practice today — not next week.”

Changes to the scheduling system are in development to make it more patient-friendly. Staff can determine provider availability faster, whether in the same practice or at a nearby provider. This change reflects the new patient-centric philosophy for preservice encounters. It also mirrors the organization’s new marketing campaign, “Health Care for the Universe of You.”

Farmer does not refer to his staff as “call center agents.” This is because of the suggestion that an “agent” is concerned only with payment or insurance. “I just can’t stand that word. I view those folks as ambassadors of the service we’re providing,” he explains. “In reality, they are some of the most important assets of the organization.”

Working at a mail service pharmacy for a major health insurer several years ago, Farmer recalls daily staff meetings always included a report on how many prescriptions failed to be delivered the previous day. It bothered him that the emphasis was not on the person waiting to receive the medication. “If we didn’t get out 100 prescriptions, in my mind, that’s 100 patients we didn’t help,” he says.

One cancer patient’s complaint about the consequences of undelivered medications made its way to upper management, who asked the man to come in to share his story with staff. “I said, ‘we can no longer look at these numbers as prescriptions,’” Farmer recalls. “We need to look at them as patients who are counting on us.”

Farmer views call center interactions the same way. “These are not calls we are taking. These are patients’ lives we are impacting every day of the week.” This philosophy was not reflected in the department’s previous, long-standing job requirements. Now, there is less emphasis on the precise number of calls employees take and more on the patient on the other end. This puts missed calls in a new light. “We’ve got to make sure we answer all these calls because all the calls we didn’t get to are patients we weren’t able to help that day,” Farmer notes. “Do they ever call back?”

Productivity still is important, but employees know it is the people who really matter in the eyes of departmental leadership. “That is the culture we need to deliver these experiences for patients,” Farmer says.