This section is part of the "Telephone Skills for the Eyecare Office" course.

Taking phone messages

Information that a phone message should have:
  • Date and time of the call
  • Name of person the message is for
  • Name of person calling
  • Return phone number of person calling
  • Reason for the call: Always ask permission to get this information. For example, “May I leave a reason for your call?” If the person prefers not to leave a reason, then state so on the message form.
  • Best time to call back
  • Person taking the message
In a large office setting, you may be taking messages for one employee trying to reach another employee. If so, don’t get lazy and leave the return phone number blank. Just because you have everyone’s extension memorized doesn’t mean that everyone does.
In a professional office, there should be a permanent record of every phone message taken from people outside of the organization. A permanent record is useful for follow-up purposes and it may be needed for legal purposes. A common way to do this is with a phone message book that has perforated message forms that produce a duplicate. There are computer programs that handle message information. Messaging in the medical office can be handled very efficiently through an electronic medical records (EMR) system.
If your office has a voice mail system, you can give the caller the option of leaving a message with you, or leaving a message on the voice mail system. Never send a caller directly to a voice mail system without first getting permission to do so from the caller.
Only give general information about why the person being messaged is not available. For example, “I’m sorry, Susan is not available to take a phone call at this time, may I take a message or connect you with voice mail?” Don’t tell a caller that a staff member is out to lunch, or on a break, or in a meeting.   This information is irrelevant and may seem unprofessional to the caller. Never give out information that an employee or a doctor is out of town or on vacation. A thief could use this information to rob the person’s home. If a staff member will be unavailable to return a phone call for an extended period of time, ask if another staff member can return the call. For example, “I’m sorry, Susan will not be available to return your call for several days, may I have Mary call you back?” Never give out the personal phone number of a staff member unless you have permission to do so.
In a professional office setting, such as a medical doctor’s office, there will be a policy about how to handle phone calls and phone messages for the doctor. Most doctors don’t take phone calls during the day unless it is from a family member or close friend, a colleague, or from a referring doctor. Most doctors are willing to be interrupted for a call from a referring doctor, because this is directly related to building a successful practice. It won’t take long before you learn when to take a message for a doctor. If in doubt, ask the doctor if he/she would like to take the call. If in doubt about whether or not the doctor will take the call, ask the caller: “May I put you on hold while I find out if Dr. Smith is available to take a phone call?” Never say “your phone call”, always say “a phone call”. This way the caller does not get the impression that his or her particular phone call is being rejected if the doctor cannot answer the phone.
In a busy medical practice, the doctor will (almost) never take a phone call from a patient. The reason for this is obvious; nothing else would get done. The vast majority of patients understand this. When a patient calls with a medical concern, the person usually asks for an appointment or for “someone” to call them back. The “someone” is usually a nurse, an assistant, or a technician assigned to the particular doctor. If a person asks to speak directly to the doctor, without giving any additional information, your first question will be, “are you a patient of Dr. Smith?”  If it is a patient, then more information will be needed to determine if an appointment is needed, or a call back. If a call back is needed, then it is appropriate for you to tell the patient that the doctor’s assistant will be returning the call. If the patient insists that the doctor call back, then politely explain that the doctor’s schedule does not allow for him/her to return all patient phone calls and that the assistant will most likely be able to help. If the patient still requests a personal call from the doctor, then explain that the request will be passed along to the doctor. You can then leave a message to the assistant explaining the details.
Returning phone messages
  • Return messages in a timely manner.
  • Do not make phone calls before 8 am or after 9pm unless you have permission to do so.
  • Allow at least 8 rings before hanging up. It often takes the elderly a long time to answer the phone.
  • When answered, give your name and whom you represent. State the reason for your call.
  • Ask if this is a good time for the call. For example: “Is this a good time for you to talk with me, or should I call back?” If not, ask when you can call back.
  • Always leave a message if possible if there is no answer.
Leaving phone messages
When leaving a phone message, the information is similar to when taking a message:
  • Name of person the message is for
  • Your name and the name of the person or office that you represent: “This is Fred at Dr. Pearson’s office.”
  • Return phone number
  • Reason for the call: It is best to leave a general message. Be careful that you don’t leave private or sensitive information.
  • Best time to call back, if this is a factor
When calling a patient to communicate private medical information, another person may answer the phone and ask you to communicate the information to him or her. If this is the case, be sure that you have written permission to communicate information regarding the patient to that particular person. In a medical office, each patient should be required to complete a HIPPA compliant form with this information.
Slow down when you are leaving a message, especially when leaving a numerical message. How many times have you had to replay a message to get a phone number?

How to put a person on hold

No one likes to be put on hold. This is a waste of time for the caller, not to mention a waste of cell phone minutes for many people. 
Never put a person on hold without waiting for a response. Saying, “please hold” as soon as you pick up the call is an excellent advertisement for the competition.
Always ask permission before putting the caller on hold. It is best to give the caller the option of a call back or to be placed on hold. Never leave a caller on hold for more than 2 minutes without giving the caller an update. If the caller requests a call back, be sure to follow up in a timely manner, meaning within 10 to 15 minutes.
If you place a caller on hold while you track down a staff member, monitor the situation if you can. Most phone systems will have a blinking light to indicate that the caller is on hold. If the staff member does not pick up the call in a timely fashion, pick up the call and offer to investigate the situation, or to take a message, depending upon the preference of the caller.
How to gracefully end a phone call
Before ending a phone call, make sure the other person understands what is being communicated by summarizing the conversation before hanging up. This does not have to be formal or complicated. For example: “Very good, Mr. Jones, I plan on calling you back Tuesday with your test results.” Thank the person for calling. Allow the other person to hand up first. If using a regular telephone receiver, do not bang the receiver down in the cradle. It is better to disconnect by pressing the receiver button before putting the receiver down.
Telephone routing (transfer)
When answering the phone, the first task will be to quickly determine why the person is calling.  For the medical office, there are many possible reasons, some of which are:
  • To schedule an appointment: routine, urgent, or emergency
  • To talk to the billing department
  • To ask for a prescription refill
  • To get test or lab results
  • To talk to a doctor or a staff member
  • To request a copy of medical records
  • To have a form completed
  • To make a sales call
Your office will have a procedure to handle each of these situations. If you cannot handle the request yourself, then you will be either taking a message or transferring the call. If you will be transferring the call, tell the caller to whom you will be transferring. Give the caller the direct phone number of the person in case the call is disconnected. Keep a list of phone numbers handy so that the transfer can be made in a timely fashion. If you know that the person you are transferring to will not be able to answer the phone, ask if the caller would like to leave a message, or be transferred to voice mail.

How to handle the emergency patient 

In some medical offices, the urgent or emergency patient is treated as the ugly stepchild of the appointment process. If the doctor is busy, no one likes to squeeze in one more patient and make an already long day even longer. The answer, of course, is to build time into the schedule for emergencies. If no emergencies show up on a particular day, then the staff has time to catch up on other duties, such as returning messages. If the schedule is consistently stuffed with regular appointments as well as work-ins, then perhaps it is time to bring in another partner.
Every effort should be made to accommodate the urgent or the emergency patient. This patient is the ultimate practice builder. This person is begging for an appointment. No sales job is needed. If this person is helped in a timely manner, then you have likely cultivated a very loyal patient who will spread the word to friends and family.
With the urgent or emergency patient, the question is how soon the patient should be seen. If there are openings in today’s schedule, it is a no-brainer, any patient can and should be seen for any reason. If you work for a multi-doctor, multi-location practice, offer another doctor and/or another location if the patient’s first choice is not available. Most patients are very flexible in this type of situation.
If the appointment schedule is full, then a decision must be made as to when the patient should be seen: today, tomorrow, next week, or next month. Always remember that the staff should not be attempting to diagnose and treat over the phone. If you are unfamiliar with the particular situation, pass the decision along to staff member with more experience. Some offices prefer to have the phone staff pass all of these decisions along to a technical staff member or to the doctor.
Here are some general guidelines:
  • A complaint of itching, burning, watering, or tearing is not an emergency, but should be seen within a week depending upon the severity of the symptoms and the duration. Many older folks have these problems chronically, and they can be advised to use artificial tears in the meantime if not using them already.
  • A complaint of a gradual decrease in vision over time and complaints of intermediate and near vision difficulty are not urgent, but can be seen as soon as the schedule allows.
  • The person with lost or broken glasses may be an emergency depending upon how dependent the person is on glasses.   A very nearsighted person may need an appointment the same day.
  • A recent onset of double vision should be seen by the following day.
  • A sudden, constant decrease in vision should be seen the same day.
  • A complaint of eye pain should be seen the same day. The exception is the complaint of eye pain that lasts for just a few seconds and occurs occasionally.
  • If the complaint is a red eye, you will need more information. A red eye accompanied by pain and/or decreased vision should be seen the same day. A red eye with discharge but no pain or decreased vision should be seen by the next day. A red eye with no pain, decreased vision, or discharge can be seen within a week. A contact lens wearer with a red eye should be seen the same day.
  • Acute eye injury should be seen the same day. This includes a foreign body sensation or any wound to the eye.
  • The complaint of floaters, flashes, or floaters and flashes is common. If accompanied by decreased vision or a shadow or veil in the vision, the person should be seen the same day. Otherwise the patient should be seen by the next day if the symptoms are new.
  • The person who calls complaining of a chemical splash to the eyes is an emergency that should be seen immediately, but not before the person has been given instructions to rinse the eye(s) immediately for 10 minutes with running water before coming into the office. If it is after hours, the person should be instructed to go to an emergency room after rinsing the eyes.
Your office may have some variations or additions to this list. Also, the caller’s level of anxiety should factor in as to when an appointment is made. Again, if you are not sure, pass the decision along to a more experienced staff member.