5 pitfalls to avoid in automating resident communications

Sean McCarthy
Sean McCarthy

Long-term care providers are bracing for a myriad of challenges in the next five years.

There is a nursing shortage, predicted to reach a deficit of 93,000 registered nurses (RNs) by 2020 in the United States, according to Georgetown University. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts employment of nursing aides and orderlies is projected to grow 17% between now and 2024.

As the population ages and millions of Americans seek long-term care, it's important to automate routine tasks to free up staff to provide personalized assistance. The first place to look for efficiency is the contact center. The contact center should be able to quickly and clearly answer simple questions and direct residents and family members to the right department when their questions are more complex.

The challenge is to deliver a high-tech and highly personal customer experience to a demographic that may be wary of change.  Here are five pitfalls to avoid.

  1. Making assumptions

Seniors are the fastest growing group of technology consumers, with 77% owning a cell phone, 59% routinely surfing the web and 49% who are broadband subscribers. Today's 65-year-olds were just 48 years old when AOL email was in vogue and the film “You've Got Mail” was in movie theaters.

While seniors aren't digital natives like millennials, they may be frequent visitors or even digital immigrants. Dropping stereotypes about seniors is imperative to designing the optimal user experience.

  1. Wasting seniors' time

If technology replaces manual processes, then seniors have the right to expect a quick payoff.

Let's take the case of a patient portal designed to let patients keep tabs on their personal health information. Seniors may be skeptical at first, but if designed well with a simple sign-on and an intuitive display, many realize this is a faster route to obtaining lab results. For those seniors, it's a clear improvement over calling, leaving a message, and waiting hours, if not days, for a doctor or nurse to call back with the information.

However if the sign-on process is complicated, requiring the use of long patient ID numbers, for example, they may give up. Or if the interface is cluttered and requires navigation to several different screens before displaying the desired lab results, it may result in a technical help call into the doctor's office by the patient. In that case, a simple phone call to the physician's front desk would be easier, despite the wait for a call back.

The same is true for contact centers. Senior turnoffs include poor voice recognition software that incorrectly routes seniors with accents or soft voices; multi-step processes that require seniors to input long codes, case numbers, or patient ID numbers; and menus with nine choices that are difficult to remember. 

Any of these situations would cause seniors to abandon the call without getting needed information.

  1. Fixing what isn't broken

A benefit of seniors is that they can help IT departments avoid the “tech for tech's sake” pitfall. They won't be impressed with the latest whizz-bang technology, so limit changes to those tweaks that truly improve efficiency and the patient experience.

Healthcare user design best practices often focus on minimizing disruption to workflows—for doctors, nurses and billing professionals. These should also consider minimizing the disruption to seniors' “life flows”.

Let's take the newest physician office design. It might have a kiosk in the center to direct patients where they need to go. It may feature one-stop shopping for primary care, specialties, alternative modalities, x-rays, lab tests and even a coffee shop. But for some seniors, this may seem like overkill. They understood the processes and flow of the old office. 

A kiosk may still make sense to help guide those patients who wish to use it. But it may be better to place it near the entrance, just to the right, which is where seniors have traditionally asked the receptionist for direction. It won't replace the warmth of the familiar receptionist who was the first person the patient saw coming into the office, but it acknowledges the patient's ingrained behavior and tries to meet them half way between efficiency and personalization.

  1. Forgetting that the call center may be a senior's last resort

One of the biggest mistakes user experience designers make when developing call centers is to assume the patient's first contact with the center is the first step in their journey. Well, it might be “Step One” to the vendor providing the solution, because that is when the user first calls into the provider organization, but it usually isn't “Step One” for the patient.

For example, a senior recently discharged from a facility receives a complicated bill. He tries figuring it out himself. He then calls his daughter, an accountant, to help make some sense of it. Still confused, he calls his private health insurer with no resolution. 

He then calls the senior living contact center, but isn't sure who could help answer his questions. The call center is his last resort. To the contact center, that first call represents “Step One,” but for the exhausted patient, it's Step 18 in his journey that began when he received that complicated bill.    

  1. Ignoring the caregiver

While optimizing your contact center for seniors, keep in mind that the voice on the other end of the line may be the caregiver's. Efforts to provide an accessible, efficient user experience can backfire if system administrators don't understand the unique needs of the caregiving population.

For instance, it's typical to personalize contact scripts by asking for “your birth date” instead of “the patient's birth date.” But for contact centers geared toward seniors, this may not work. If the caregiver calls in and gives his birth date instead of the senior's (because the system prompted him with “what's your birth date?”), the contact center won't be able to correctly identify the patient.

One solution is to use the generic “the patient” or “the resident” throughout the call. But designers for senior contact centers should also consider asking callers to identify themselves as patient or caregivers at the beginning of the call, and route each one to personalized scripts designed for their needs.

Long-term care communities don't need weeks of costly roundtable discussions with older audiences to better know their users. But listening must be a key element of the user experience design. 

Some small, cost-effective steps can be as simple as using tools to determine how long a senior stays on a call, what the most frequent questions and concerns are and which answers can best be automated without sacrificing patient/resident satisfaction.

Sean McCarthy is a User Experience Designer at West Healthcare.

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