Case study: Using telephone technology to support GP mergers and improve the patient experience

Improving access to GP services was a priority for the Hicks Group as it looked to cloud-based telephony to provide a better service for staff and patients

Improving access to general practice services is an essential part of the GP Forward View.

It, and other NHS policies, suggest that patients can avoid the inconvenience and cost of hospital visits by being treated in primary care.

But this can only happen if they have access to the services on offer, and the phone is the main way in which most patients can source the care they require through general practice.

Patients were saying it was easier to turn up at the surgery in the morning to book an appointment than to try get through on the phone

As the 2017 GP Patient Survey shows, 85.6% of patients normally book appointments to see a GP or nurse at a surgery via the phone.

However, the number who report it as an easy task to get through on the phone is in decline, with survey respondents who say, ‘it is easy to access their practice via phone’ falling steadily from 77.9% in 2012 to 68% in 2017.

The fastest-finger lottery

Growing demand means that patients have to endure the ‘fastest-finger lottery’ of trying to book appointments using overloaded and often-outdated phone lines, causing huge frustration all round.

It was a fact seen first hand at The Hicks Group, a practice which works across two surgery sites in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

Many patients were voicing, and at times even writing complaints to the surgery due to the difficulties they were having getting through via the phone system.

“Patients were saying it was easier to turn up at the surgery in the morning to book an appointment, than to try get through on the phone,” said Lisa Harrison, practice manager at the Hicks Group.

“We were using an old BT system and it was not coping with demand.”

The problem did not stop with the patients; it was also affecting the ability of staff to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.

“We work across two sites at present, and we could not transfer calls between practices,” said Harrison.

Coping with expansion

There were concerns that such frustrations, for both staff and patients, were likely to grow.

With The Hicks Group planning to merge with two other practices locally; it saw that it needed to enhance its telephony solution if it was to meet its own needs, and those of its patients.

Such a solution needed to cope with growing demand by providing the flexibility of being able to add multiple numbers and extensions, and laying the foundations for a single contact centre across all sites.

This would help staff get through to the right person more easily and more quickly, and patients could be more confident of getting through to arrange an appointment.

The practice chose to invest in a cloud-based system that can grow to meet those needs.

“We can have unlimited lines and we can divert incoming calls to either of the numbers of our practices to the first available receptionist,” said Harrison.

“This was especially useful recently when there was a power cut at one of our practices. One short call to the supplier and we had all our calls diverted to the operational practice, ensuring patients could get through despite the loss of power.”

The solution chosen, called Surgery Connect, is a phone system designed to meet the specific demands of GP surgeries.

It uses cloud technology so that it can cope with multiple calls and scale to meet demand. And, because it has evolved from a system that is used across retail to process payments, it provides exceptional levels of data security.

The system enables calls to be queued, so that the first to call should be the first to be answered. Calls can be routed to the right person, rather than have to go through a single access point.

It also comes with call recording, which enables the effective training of staff to enhance the service for patients.

“We can review and listen in on calls to see what went well and where things could be improved, helping to enhance the patient experience,” said Harrison.

The service comes with a full audit trail of who rang and when, how long the call took, and the ability to search for phone numbers and calls.

It also has data and a reporting dashboard that includes the number of calls the surgeries are missing – all services previously absent from the BT phone system. The surgery can measure what is happening around patient access so it can better manage this process and deliver an enhanced patient experience.

Patients say they are much happier now, as they actually get a response, even if it is just to tell them they are held in a call queue

Harrison said: “Patients say they are much happier now, as they actually get a response, even if it is just to tell them they are held in a call queue.

“There is nothing more frustrating than calling a number and not being able to get through, which previously was the case. And staff find the system intuitive and easy to use.”

Now it is using the latest in telephone tech, the practice can deliver an improved patient experience, as well as ensure it has a platform for growth – a requirement for many practices as they consider options such as federation. This kind of system is vital so practices are able to cope with increasing demands and scale up.

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