The telephone ringing non-stop first thing in the morning is a sure sign the workday has begun.  We love the convenience and efficiency of the telephone to get things done, and so do our patients.

Our patients use the telephone as a means to book appointments, check on lab results and request repeat prescriptions, among many other things.

Have you ever asked how easy it is for your patients to make contact with the practice using the telephone?

Telephone calls can interrupt our work and are often viewed as a nuisance.  That attitude can be detected by the patient if it exists.

Providing options for the patient to be directed to the correct service (press 1 for appointments, press 2 for the nurse etc) can be seen as an efficient way of dealing with the calls, but how do our patients view that approach?

When dealing with organisations over the telephone, our view of those organisations can be significantly influenced by the quality of this experience.  If we are seeking some basic information that is not particularly sensitive, for example ‘is my appliance repaired and ready to pick up?’, we may be happy for a system that directs us to that information in the most efficient way.

However, when dealing with a general practice the relationship is personal and can often involve the need to reveal private and sensitive information.  We like to feel looked after and cared for in a more personal way. When booking an appointment we may appreciate perfect efficiency, but the detail of a diagnosis or a lab result is more likely to require understanding, empathy and compassion, not to mention some direction as to what to do next.

The way in which the practice delivers this service says a lot about how we value our patients and their health.

The dilemma for the practice is the sheer volume of communications required to get to our patients in a way that is most appropriate to them. That’s where patient portals and email come to the fore.  More and more patients are happy to receive personal, private information by electronic means, especially if it is secure (not an email that is able to be viewed by family or colleagues).  Sending messages and information via a portal can be a very effective and efficient means for the practice to deliver these messages.  Using these tools the messages can be sent in a personal, timely and convenient way for both the practice and the patient.

If you consider that almost 65% of patients were born after 1970, then it’s easy to see that most of your patients are likely to be ‘connected’, using computers and smartphones as a regular part of their daily lives.  Will they view messages delivered into the portal as impersonal?  I suspect not if we carefully choose the language we use and deliver the information in a timely way.

A significant proportion of the care we deliver in practices is for patients with an acute illness.  These patients usually want an appointment on the day they call, creating this early morning spike at the practice.  Naturally it is frustrating then to find they can’t get an appointment quickly or at a time convenient to them.

As patients become aware of the benefits of patient portals, being able to set appointments online will diminish this rush and should lead to a greater level of satisfaction all round.