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Does anyone ever answer the phone?


Nursing Times Award winner Joanne Mangnall on the pitfalls of a telephone prescription service

I think most of us have experienced that feeling of utter frustration which comes from trying to contact someone via the telephone and discovering the only conversation you are likely to have is one with yourself as you ask whether anyone ever answers the phone.

Chirpy messages along the lines of “Your call IS important to us, please hold and your call will be dealt with by the next available customer service operative” are my particular pet hate. So it’s no real surprise to us that one of the recurrent grumbles we get from patients using our new continence prescription service relates to the answerphone.

The telephone system within our community health centre allows you to do one of two things. It can be set so that callers hear the engaged tone if they ring in while you are already taking a call, alternatively the caller can be automatically diverted to the answer phone without hearing the engaged signal. As a service we decided the automatic divert would be the best option as patients would be able to listen to a recorded message, leave their message and we would then return the call.

However, as with many things in life, things have not worked out quite as we first imagined. What we failed to appreciate was this facility can give the impression that we don’t ever answer the telephone.

Despite Laura, our prescription co-ordinator, being sat with her headset on poised to take calls Monday to Friday 8am – 4pm, we do find calls peak at certain times.

‘We failed to appreciate was this facility can give the impression that we don’t ever answer the telephone’

This means while Laura is answering the phone and dealing with prescriptions requests, new callers are hearing the recorded message. With over 1,000 patients using the service we have to be realistic and accept we will have to use facilities such as the answerphone at times, after all Laura does need to have lunch and go to the loo!

However we feel we need to keep this to a minimum and have been exploring additional ways in which patients can access our service. Many patients have asked if they could email their prescription request to us. We are certain we will be able to offer this facility in the very near future. It may appear this is taking an inordinate length of time to get this agreed by our trust, but the safety of patient data is paramount, the correct governance arrangements have to be in place.

As mobile telephones are now common place we are also looking at piloting a texting facility. This will be offered to patients who have single item prescriptions, for example those who undertake intermittent self catheterisation. Clinical review will still be required at intervals dependant on the patient’s clinical needs but text could be used to replace phone calls to generate a repeat prescription.

By exploring alternative ways in which patients can access our service we aim to free up telephone time so that when patients ring in they are more likely to speak to a member of the team rather than hear the dreaded answer phone message. We appreciate it may only be a small percentage of our patients who wish to use email and/or texting facilities, however even a small reduction in patients ringing the service has the potential to improve service access for all.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I read this article with interest and would whole heartedly agree with the frustrations highlighted.

    But the truth of the matter is that with today’s technology there really is no excuse for keeping customers on hold or deferring to answer phone. People want to speak to people and to get their query resolved as quickly as possible.

    Is the cost v’s customer service balance too hard to achieve?

    The private sector is increasingly sending their “overflow” calls to UK based outsourced reception companies to have their calls answered quickly, efficiently and as if based at the desk next to “Laura”. Costs are low as you only pay for what you use and can be flexible answering only the calls you can’t answer yourselves.

    It’s time to ring the changes and provide a service that organisations are proud to give and that customers enjoy receiving.

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  • Thank you for your suggestion. We certainly can explore options such as the one you have suggested. Investment in the service is undertaken, the texting option incurs a monthly charge to the service. Our service uses templates which sit within the patients clinical record & we are actively reviewing patients each time they contact the service. As this is actually a clinical contact it does need to be carried out by staff working in our department. In signing the prescription we are accepting clinical responsibility for that aspect of the patients clinical care. I think in outsourcing overflow calls to our service the patient would still have to wait for us to call back. I appreciate the patient would have spoken to a person rather than our answer phone but you could argue waiting for someone to call back is equally frustrating. We are actively addressing the problems we have identified and are in fact providing a service to patients which is much speedier than the one they previously received from GP services. Prescriptions are now issued on the day the patient contacts the service rather than the three days GP services usually take to process repeat prescription requests. We do have many satisfied patients, a quick check of the patient opinion website will provide the evidence, however we are always looking at ways we can improve service delivery.

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