Health education goes electronic

E-mail and Internet preferred by many patients

Most call centers are developing a closer link with their hospital web sites, says Julie Bruns, call center manager for BJC HealthCare in St. Louis. "In our case, the people will e-mail questions and requests for physicians. What might have been a phone call in the past is now an e-mail, so the call center is providing support for that," she says.

Also parent-friendly protocols on the St. Louis Children’s Hospital web site (www.stlouischildrens.org), which is one of the 13 hospitals within the health care system, help to support its Answer Line. "Parents can go on-line and look up information about fever and follow a set of protocols written by the same physician who wrote our telephone protocols. They can get some basic information there and, if they still have a question, they can call," says Bruns.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has an e-call center on its web site to complement the call center. "Our e-call center has a number of our most asked for protocols in a format that most parents would understand. They include behavioral issues and chronic illness like asthma and reflux. Parents can read the information at their leisure," says Pennie Graham, RN, MS, director of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Call Center.

The information line at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, gets almost as many e-mails as phone calls. Staff answer most e-mails within 24 hours.

"E-mails are more difficult from a customer service perspective because when you give them an e-mail answer it is in writing and there is no interaction. There has been some dissatisfaction with the answers we gave because patients didn’t feel like they got the answer they were looking for," says Darren Skyles, director of the M.D. Anderson Information Line.

Staff for the information line attended a seminar to learn how to format e-mail messages so the answer showed more understanding of the patient’s request. Now Skyles searches for the "question" that the patient is asking and addresses that first in his return message. "What we have started to do is to categorize our answers. If, for example, they are asking about our treatments for pancreatic cancer we might have a category in bold letters that says "treatment information" and then give them the information so they don’t get lost. We are trying to make our e-mails more user-friendly," says Skyles.