Three Tips to Improving Front Desk Communications During COVID-19

Front desk staff at your practice are literally on the front lines. They’re the first people patients see when they come into the practice, and they’re the ones with whom patients first interact with over the phone. This was true pre-COVID-19. However, during the pandemic, anxiety runs high—and the way in which front desk staff interact with patients has changed. The good news is that as with any disruption, it’s an opportunity to improve the overall patient experience.

“The biggest change so far is that staff have really had to rely more on their customer service skills,” says Tom Slowe, Senior Advisor focused on Change Management and Training at Pivot Point Consulting, headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee. For some, this is a new skill, and it may not come naturally, he adds.

These skills are critical for everything ranging from consoling a patient newly diagnosed with COVID to navigating difficult conversations about financial hardships to calming a patient’s anxieties about coming into the office, and more, says Slowe. All of this is against the backdrop of a rapidly-changing environment ruled by an unpredictable virus, he adds.

Slowe provides three tips to help front-desk staff communicate effectively with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Slow down, think about tone. 


Speak calmly, and take the extra couple of minutes to help a patient in distress. Ask them how you can provide support, and let them know you care about their well-being. This goes a long way in terms of building and strengthening relationships and trust, says Slowe.

2. Pay attention to detail.

“Listen to what’s being said, but also look beyond the words,” says Slowe. What is it that patients actually need? For example, if they’re upset about a bill, is it because they simply don’t understand the charges? What can you do to clear up the confusion? Can you explain medical codes included on the bill and define any acronyms used? “This is the time to look at your billing communications and make sure they’re patient-friendly,” says Slowe.

What are their other concerns? For example, are they reluctant to provide insurance information because that would require them to admit they recently lost their job? Let them know that the office is a no judgement zone and that you want to make sure they won’t receive a bill for something that should have been covered. “Make sure patients understand that you’re asking these questions for their own benefit,” says Slowe.

3. Participate in scenario-based training.

Scenarios help staff practice problem solving so they’re prepared for real-life encounters with patients in distress. When Slowe provides training to physician practices, he says front desk staff are often apprehensive at first because they don’t think they’re capable of providing the level of customer service that’s often required during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s a matter of changing their mindset in how they approach their job,” he adds.

This type of training helps staff use active listening skills so they can obtain all of the information required to ensure the patient receives accurate and timely care as well as an accurate bill for that care. Active listening is a way of listening in which the listener lets the patient speak uninterrupted and then paraphrases and reflects on what the patient said. This form of listening lets patients know they’re heard and understood.

Equally as important is the ability to practice self-restraint and not become overly defensive when patients are upset. Although the customer isn’t technically always right, they usually are—especially in a customer-oriented practice. For example, are patients upset that they can’t get an appointment right away or that their physician is only conducting appointments via telehealth? Help patients understand why. A little bit of empathy also goes a long way. Acknowledge that it’s hard to wait for an appointment and that the physician misses seeing their patients in person.

Ultimately, effective patient communication during the COVID-19 pandemic translates to a better overall experience in the long-run, says Slowe. “It’s all about relationships,” he adds. “You want the patient to feel like they’re part of your family so they come to you for everything.”

With that said, however, practice managers need to ensure they not only protect front-desk staff using plexiglass and other safety precautions—they also need to ensure staff feel valued, says Slowe. “Never forget that your front line staff are experiencing the same types of anxieties and concerns as patients,” he adds. “Whatever you can do to make them feel comfortable in their jobs will translate directly to a positive patient experience.”

For additional tips on building a stellar experience for your patients to boost loyalty, health outcomes and patient collections in your practice, plan to join us at our upcoming webinar on How to Build a 5-Star Practice with a Patient-Centered Approach. The webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 10 a.m. PT and you can register here. Also, if you are looking for other ways to engage with your patients to improve their overall experience with your practice, find out more about Kareo's patient engagement solution here. 

About the Author

Lisa A. Eramo, BA, MA is a freelance writer specializing in health information management, medical coding, and regulatory topics. She began her healthcare career as a...

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