Published on October 02, 2015

Who’s on the phone at your doctor’s office?Who’s on the phone at your doctor’s office?

“One ringy dingy….two ringy dingies . . . Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking? … How may I, in all humble servitude, be of assistance?”

Those memorable words came from Ernestine, the hilarious telephone operator created by Lily Tomlin in the 1970s. Although Ernestine was a busybody and gave out information that was not her business, at least she was a real person on the telephone line.

The days of live operators are long gone, and now it’s a wonder just to connect with a human when you call your doctor’s office.

Today, automated voices with phone menu choices have become the norm in many physician practices. Annoying as they can be, it may surprise you to learn how much thought some medical offices put into automated phone trees before deciding to use them.

Medical offices consider the individual dyanamics of their own practices and how their patients will react to a phone tree, Jonathan McCallister wrote in a 2010 article in Physicans Practice.

Among the concerns are the number of front office staff answering the phones while trying to perform their other duties, such as scheduling appointments, checking in patients and answering questions, wrote McCallister, an expert in healthcare IT management.

“We’re fairly new to the phone tree, about 1 ½ years,” said Jen Buccheri, practice coordinator at Upper Cape Orthopedics. The decision to automate came from the entire office, including the two physicians and the staff.

Buccheri said many would have preferred to keep a live person answering the phones, but the size of the office made it ineffective. Their phone tree has four basic and clear options to direct callers to staff.

“All of my girls are cross trained, so whatever number you push, you will get an answer to your question,” said Buccheri. “I don’t believe in having a lot of options. It just makes it more difficult for the patient,” she added.

Seaside Pediatrics tried a phone menu system for a day or two—and then decided to switch back. They didn’t receive any complaints but felt their patients were better served without the automated system.

“The parents want to talk to a live person when they call,” said Blanche McCarthy, practice manager. “We direct them wherever they need to go.”

If parents call to talk about their child with a nurse, for example, the staff will first ask for the patient’s name and date of birth. They’ll call the nurse at her extension and give her the information so the nurse can pull the medical record and be ready to speak with the parent.

On some occasions, when the office is short staffed or very busy, callers may need to leave a message. But staff members do a good job returning those calls as quickly as possible, McCarthy said.

Offices considering phone trees should first assess when their call volumes are highest and whether patients will be able to connect directly and easily to people they want to reach, such as a nurse’s extension.

Attitudes toward automated phone systems may be changing, according to The Front Office Bottleneck: Schedules, Phones, and Refills, an article on ACPInternist.org, the website of the American College of Physicians. So much of the technology is now used in business that people have grown used to it, Jessica Berthold wrote.

And automated systems can be especially helpful when they route patients to individual voicemails where they can leave messages for prescription refills, referrals or sick visits.

Automated phone trees are like a marriage of sorts, and communication is the key. As long as the patients’ needs are heard and met, then they may not be such a bad thing.

And when that doesn’t happen? Ernestine would probably offer this: “And as a special favor, I’m enclosing our three-color brochure on phone etiquette. You might find it useful.”