Overwhelmed and understaffed: Alleviating call volume for primary care practices


The days of “bad ‘bots” are behind us so put smart virtual assistants to work in your practice to reduce call volume, deliver self-service options to patients and improve operational efficiency.

Overwhelmed and understaffed: Alleviating call volume for primary care practices | Image Credit: © vectorfusionart - © vectorfusionart - stock.adobe.com.

Overwhelmed and understaffed: Alleviating call volume for primary care practices | Image Credit: © vectorfusionart - © vectorfusionart - stock.adobe.com.

Staff at primary care practices (PCPs) are inundated with patient calls, straining resources on all fronts.

Interactive virtual assistants powered by generative artificial intelligence (AI) and with the capacity for natural language processing can tackle these complex challenges. These digital solutions can now be built in hours, rather than weeks or months, leveraging existing content approved by the organization to ensure accuracy and security. They can be quickly deployed on a website to answer routine questions and relieve the burden on contact centers, the front desk, and support staff.

Interest in these solutions is skyrocketing: Automation featuring patient self-service tools is fueling market growth expected to reach $944.65 million by 2032.

Primary care practices, along with the rest of the health care industry, traditionally have been hesitant to adopt virtual assistants because conventional “bad ‘bots” performed poorly, leading to patient frustration. But the days of “bad ‘bots” that produce unhelpful or inaccurate information (or worse, none at all) are all but behind us.

Reallocating staff resources

Research in industries such as energy has found that virtual assistants can handle up to 80% of routine customer requests, a statistic that intuitively translates to health care. With many routine patient inquiries off their plate, overextended staff can dedicate more time to the 20% of patient calls that do require a one-on-one conversation.

In other words, they can direct their efforts to significant, high-value patient interactions (e.g., talking to an elderly patient with diabetes who has a time-sensitive question about her blood sugar levels) rather than relaying office hours. Staff members want to feel like they are genuinely making a real difference in patients’ lives. After all, that is the reason why they chose health care in the first place. By incorporating automation into the mix, they get that valuable opportunity back.

Improving the patient experience

Likewise, using virtual assistants with conversational and generative AI capabilities to address routine queries also improves the overall patient experience.

When asked to choose the most positive aspects of interacting with a chatbot, a recent survey found that 68% of respondents named the impressive speed at which a chatbot could answer their questions. Patients do not want to spend time calling their practice or playing telephone tag any more than staff wants to answer the same few questions over and over.

In addition, patients find virtual assistants deliver high-quality answers. A recent JAMA study compared responses to patient questions from an AI-powered virtual assistant to those from live physicians. They found that users preferred the virtual assistant answers to the physician’s 78.6% of the time, because they seemed more thorough and empathetic.

Fast answers they can access themselves – any time of day or night – leaves patients feeling satisfied all around, and therefore less likely to abandon the practice (perhaps in favor of a nearby retail clinic). When patient self-scheduling is added to the mix, the perceived value rises even higher.

Streamlining financial resources

Integrating new technology into a legacy infrastructure often comes with a substantial price tag. But virtual assistants leveraging generative AI are the exception.

Because today’s virtual assistants using models like ChatGPT can be spun up in hours, rather than weeks, development costs drop dramatically. Plus, they can ingest a wide variety of documents from webpages to PDFs to spreadsheets to videos to FAQs, which means PCPs can leverage a broader range of existing source materials (and not necessarily undertake a resource-consuming overhaul of their website to launch a genuinely effective virtual assistant).

Savings continue after implementation. Addressing routine queries via a virtual assistant that leverages AI conversationally is a much cheaper way to interact with patients. The average cost per customer service interaction by phone ranges from $5 to $12 dollars, while a similar exchange handled by a virtual assistant brings the cost down 80% to just $1.55.

Adopting automation helps PCPs help themselves

Armed with the knowledge that adopting generative AI-powered virtual assistants to automate routine patient interactions is beneficial both financially and organizationally, PCP practices cannot simply turn a blind eye to the benefits they stand to gain.

The value is clear and many of the barriers have been removed. Providing self-service options to patients via generative AI-powered virtual assistants saves money, reduces demand on staff, and delivers a better patient experience.

Patty Riskind, MBA, is a dynamic health care tech leader and currently serves as CEO of Orbita. She also held leadership positions as head of global healthcare with Qualtrics and chief client experience officer for Press Ganey. She received her bachelor’s from Brown University and earned her master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

This article was initally published by our sister publication, Medical Economics®.

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