Get on a drive to obtain 'non-traditional' info

Obtaining "non-traditional" contact information, such as cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses, has become a major priority for University of Pittsburg Medical Center (UPMC)'s patient access department. Both of these are now required fields in the system.

"We are finding that a lot of patients are now using cell phones as their main contact number. We have adapted our registration screens to request both cell phone and e-mail information, so we can always accommodate the patient preference of communication," states Karen Shaffer-Platt, executive director of access/information services.

Patients may be easier to reach on cell phone, which means that patient access staff can avoid playing phone tag with home answering machines. "We do automated calling to patients if there are any pieces of information missing that we need prior to the patients arriving. That can be any piece of any demographic information or information on insurance coverage," says Diane Zilko, senior director of the physician services division access development/central call centers. Patients can either stay on the phone and speak to someone right away, or are given contact information to return the call at a convenient time.

The goal is to gather all of this information ahead of time, so everything is ready to go when the patient arrives for his or her scheduled appointment. At that time, the patient is handed a sheet of paper and asked to confirm that everything on it is correct.

"We do that prior to checking the patient in and moving forward, so they get one more look at their information prior to their appointment," says Zilko. "If all goes well in the entire process, we check them in and they get the premier service they deserve. The patient feels as though we know who they are, and they are recognized and remembered by UPMC. That is the best possible scenario."

The department is on a drive to collect e-mail addresses. "We have seen a very big increase in patients willing to give us their e-mail addresses, as long as we are explaining to them our purpose. Those that use e-mail frequently prefer to communicate through our secured patient portal," says Zilko. For instance, patients can receive appointment reminders electronically or be informed about online services available to them if they have signed up to use the online business tools provided through UPMC.

Using text messaging to remind patients about appointments is another possibility on the horizon. "It's a little more complicated because anytime you are pushing out data to patients, you have to be careful with HIPAA," says Zilko. "But just six months ago, we wouldn't have even been able to think about that, because we didn't have that collection of cell phone information in our database. So that is the first step to moving toward better use of technology."