Healthcare Call Centers Help Bring Care to the Medically Underserved

An elderly woman talks on the phone from her living room.

Healthcare Call Centers Help Bring Care to the Medically Underserved

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is focused on improving the healthcare of people who are considered to be geographically isolated, and economically or medically vulnerable. Medically underserved populations and areas are designated by HRSA as having too few primary care providers, high infant mortality, high poverty, or a high elderly population.

These populations include:

  • Uninsured Persons - Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Health Interview Survey cite that in 2017, 29.3 million, or 9.1 percent of the population did not have health insurance.
  • Vulnerable Populations - Multiple studies have found that vulnerable populations in the United States, including the elderly, low-income, ethnic minorities, migrants, and people who received limited education, are also medically underserved.
  • Poor Access to Healthcare - Living in a rural location and having inadequate transportation present challenges when trying to access healthcare. Rural areas are sparsely populated, resulting in a lack of available services. Rural communities comprise roughly 20 percent of the United States, and less than 10 percent of doctors practice in these communities.

People in rural areas rely on their own transportation to and from health services. A report released in December 2018 from Pew Research Center, found the average travel time by car, to the nearest hospital for rural Americans, is about 17 minutes compared to 10 minutes in urban areas.

However, even people in urban areas have difficulty visiting their doctor’s office. Transportation can be a challenge for people with disabilities, those with chronic illnesses, the elderly, and people who are low-income. Approximately 3.6 million Americans, from both rural and urban areas, experience missed or delayed medical appointments due to transportation issues.

Support from Healthcare Call Centers

Technology enables medical call centers to effectively become an extension of a hospital or clinic’s operations. The communication software used by medical call centers can securely access a patient’s electronic medical record (EMR), update EMRs with notes, and record calls that need to be used for insurance claims and workmen’s compensation. Because everything is documented, detailed reports can be generated for reporting purposes.

Healthcare-related services can be provided or facilitated by medical call centers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They play a critical role in helping to serve the medically underserved, by addressing two of the biggest barriers to healthcare - language and transportation. 

  • Language - Healthcare staff work with an enormously diverse patient population. Understanding a person’s language leads to better healthcare. Multi-lingual call center operators are hired to assist non-English speaking patients, or confidential over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) services can be used for access to hundreds of different languages.
  • Transportation - Patients with mobility challenges or who live in rural areas, don’t have to leave home for some services. Operators can coordinate care, make follow-up calls, schedule visits, contact on-call medical staff, and manage referrals.

Some call centers are staffed by nurses or multidisciplinary teams (such as a resident, pharmacist, and social worker) who are qualified to make health assessments, give medical advice, and escalate critical concerns. These call centers can offer nurse call helplines, emergency mental health counseling, and other critical support.

Helping Hospitals that Help the Underserved

A recent study done by Harvard suggests that hospitals located in low-income areas are more likely to be penalized due to Medicare and Medicaid’s survey-based reimbursement programs. Patients are asked to provide information about their health care experience via the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey. Unacceptable survey outcomes can result in hospitals losing some reimbursements. 

The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics reports that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) can currently withhold three percent of Medicare payments - 30 percent of which are tied to HCAHPS scores. When Medicare and Medicaid account for more than 60 percent of all care provided by hospitals, the possible amount of dollars lost due to poor patient experience is a significant number. In 2017 alone, approximately $1.7 billion in reimbursements were withheld from hospitals.

Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) also lowers payments to Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) hospitals who report too many hospital readmissions. The cost of those penalties across United States hospitals is an estimated $563 million for fiscal year 2019. Of the 3,129 general hospitals evaluated in the HRRP in 2019, 83% received a penalty.

Healthcare call centers have an impact on patient satisfaction survey results, because they function as a virtual lobby for a hospital and are often the first point of contact with a patient. The patient’s experience with coordinating their care via call center agents can affect their feedback on the survey.

Studies have indicated that a post-discharge call program can help hospitals reduce their readmission rate. IPC Healthcare (IPC) tested the effect of post-discharge calls on readmission rates from October 2010 through September 2011. The IPC call center contacted 350,000 discharged patients to check symptoms, review medications and treatment plans, and remind patients of follow-up appointments. Thirty percent of patients were successfully contacted and it was estimated that the program prevented 1,782 avoidable readmissions over the course of that year.

The infrastructure, techology, and diversity provided by hospital call centers support medical staff who care for underserved patients. And perhaps unexpectedly, call centers can benefit a healthcare system’s bottomline by providing excellent service to patient callers.

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