By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
AnswerStat magazine (AS): Joe, you own and operate Mediconnect, a telephone answering service for the healthcare industry. How did you get started and how long have you been in business?
Joseph Sameh (JS): I was a business/clinical practice manager beginning in 1976. Growing practices was among my primary responsibilities. Each practice did quite well but we learned at every turn that the existing patient-to-provider communications process didn’t meet our needs. Mediconnect was founded in 1985, partially as a result of these experiences.
AS: How big has your call center become?
JS: We have hundreds of clients. However, numbers can be misleading. Several years ago, a hospital consortium consolidated all their practices and became one of our clients while increasing billing significantly. A better measure is call volume, which exceeds four million a year.
Many clients have multiple projects running simultaneously and some of our project-based work requires hundreds of seats. In order to provide this level of service we have been sharing calls with many other call centers on a project-specific basis for many years now.
AS: What are some of the changes you have seen over the years?
JS: Automation to lower labor cost has eliminated the human touch. This has not always been well planned. Many practices overuse of voice mail has resulted in unhappy patients and overburdened staff. Medical staff routinely spends hours daily retrieving their voice messages while patients experience delays in callbacks. This has given us access to daytime messaging business, which accounts for 96% of all patient communications activity. From a vendor perspective, we have recognized the value of specialization and how it can affect the marketplace. We’ve been very fortunate in this area.
AS: What are some of the challenges facing you today?
JS: Insurance and other costs represent serious internal challenges. Downward pricing pressures add to the challenge. But the greatest challenge of all will come from the Internet. The Internet has disrupted the smooth methods of every industry with which it has come in contact. We must harness it or fight it.
Another is companies entering the secure messaging marketplace. This has the potential to affect us in health care just as voice mail affected live service provision to Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioningcompanies. The greatest threat is coming from well-heeled companies that provide electronic patient record systems to major hospitals and are now making patient access to their systems a reality. These companies do not believe the role that an answering service plays is essential and have no plans to include them in the future. Other emerging technologies are also vying for our traditional piece of the pie.
AS: How will medical answering services change in the future?
JS: Physically, there will be more at-home agents taking calls and much more call sharing and load balancing between centers essentially creating on demand virtual contact centers. Organizations with integrated technologies (IVR/voice/live/Web) and convergent data base power will lead the field.
In the future, we will need to be nimble to address changing needs of clients and patients. There are increasing numbers of practice websites sprouting without patient access. The problem may not be obvious. The practices are inviting people to visit their website but when visitors arrive there, there is no access. Imagine inviting people to visit your vacation home while you are away but disregarding the need for keys or the alarm access code.
Practices could not afford to overlook after hours patient access by phone, yet their website is not considered within their communications sphere. This presents a huge opportunity for our industry.
AS: The healthcare industry has changed a great deal in recent years, how has that affected your operation?
JS: We have always been sensitive to two taskmasters: the needs of our stakeholders – patients as well as clients – and emerging technology. This has emboldened us to create products that have become industry standards. As such, we are providing a significantly expanded menu of services to meet the needs of the marketplace.
AS: The recent trend has been for doctors to leave private practice become employees of health organizations. How has that changed the doctor-answering service relationship?
JS: The relationship was more of a one-on-one relationship with the doctor. We once had over 1,000 clients and represented far fewer physicians than we do currently. Today, the office managers are often our primary contact point. They have a much more sophisticated level of service expectation and consistency as well as understanding of the communications process. That has become a big boost to our business. As a result, we are occasionally recognized as a profit center rather than a cost center, which dims the aura of cost cutting as the main driver. Of course, cost cutting is always part of “the back of the mind” conversation.
AS: In addition to telephone answering service, what are some of the supporting and complementary services that you offer?
JS: We offer a large and growing menu of client services. Through Phone Screen we provide patient recruitment and retention services to the pharmaceutical clinical trials and medical device industry. In January 2003 we introduced NeedMyDoctor®, an Internet patient-to-provider communications tool.
AS: Joe, tell us more about PhoneScreen.
JS: Our services are used by many pharmaceutical companies to screen volunteers for clinical trials. We developed a model for screening and found that as we evolved there was a huge need for centralized call center services for clinical trials. We founded our PhoneScreen division to provide services to aid recruitment and retention of subjects for the pharmaceutical industry. It has since become its own company.
AS: And what about NeedMyDoctor?
JS: NeedMyDoctor® is our vision of the future. Patients overwhelmingly want to use the Internet to make requests of their doctors. However, doctors don’t want to adopt the Internet for patient communications for a number of excellent reasons. Most telling and according to Providence Health System is that 50% of those patients would consider switching providers to those that accept alternative communications methodology.
We believe NeedMyDoctor® is a communication tool that meets the needs of both patient and doctor. Patients get to leave their request on the Internet while doctors don’t need any Internet access at all. This HIPAA compliant tool integrates the Web with the practices existing call center provider without any changes to the practice protocol. Since this is not email, there is never any spam.
AS: What else would you like to share with readers?
JS: Our attitude towards our competitors has become one of co-opetition. It has allowed us to do more than we ever could on our own – and for that we are very appreciative. I know I’m speaking for the industry at large since so many people we’ve never worked with described similar experiences.
AS: Thank you for your time and willingness to share with the readers of AnswerStat magazine.
JS: Thank you!
[From the Summer 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]