How Your Voicemail Is Losing You Patients

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“You have reached our general mailbox. Please leave a message and someone will get back to you as soon as possible.”

As both a pharmacist and a patient, those are the most dreaded words — the general mailbox (and usually the scheduling mailbox) seem to record messages that will never be returned. I have been a pharmacist long enough (17 years) to tell by an outgoing message who will actually return a call and which call will fall into the land of nowhere and never be returned.

Recently, as a patient, I tried to schedule an appointment with a specialist. I called the first one on my list, pressed 1 for appointments, waited a bit, and got connected to the general mailbox. I hung up, and dialed the next doctor on my list, knowing that my call would never be returned by the first. I had things to do and wanted to lock in an appointment and get on with my day. I give myself about 95% accuracy when guessing, just from the outgoing message, who will return a call. To me, making a routine appointment should be one quick phone call, not a process where you have to wait for a return call.

Now, as a doctor, think how important it is to pick up as many calls as you can, and if you can’t, have a dedicated staff member to return calls in a prompt manner. If no one is calling potential patients back, think of how much money you are losing in potential patients.

Here is an example of an outgoing message that gives me confidence in a return call, as both a patient and pharmacist.

“Hello, you have reached Diane, scheduling coordinator for Dr. Jones. Messages are checked every hour. Please leave your name, date of birth, phone number, and a brief message and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you.”

As a patient, I judge a doctor’s office not only on the doctor — do they “know their stuff,” and have good bedside manner, but just as much on ease of communication with that office — will they call me back if I have a question? Is it easy to schedule appointments? Can I get a same day appointment when sick? Do they respond to refill requests?

On more than one occasion, I have stayed with certain doctors that I wasn’t crazy about because the office staff was extremely efficient and friendly.

On Facebook pages, doctor recommendations are discussed frequently in local groups. As much as people discuss the doctor, they discuss the office staff. I have seen many comments like, “Dr. Jones is brilliant and awesome, but the office staff is not friendly.”

Years ago, I changed OB-GYN’s in anticipation of starting a family. Why? Because they would take DAYS to respond to simple refill requests for my patients at the pharmacy. If they lacked this kind of attention to detail, that is not who I wanted taking care of me while pregnant.

Doctors, your office staff is as important as you are! When a patient enters the office, who is the first person he/she will see? Be sure the people you hire are friendly, responsive, and detail oriented, so all administrative/scheduling issues are taken care of promptly and you do not lose potential patients to the inevitable disappearing general mailbox. By being the smart and caring doctor you are, combined with an efficient and friendly office staff, you will always be a patient favorite (and pharmacist favorite, too)!

Karen Berger, PharmD, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 2001. After working many years in chain pharmacies, she currently enjoys working as a pharmacist at an independent pharmacy.

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