The May 2013 Issue

Self-Service or Phone Service?

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, publisher and editor

I’ve been thinking about self-service lately. Self-service works nicely when I want general information. But when I seek to resolve an issue with a product, service, or bill, online self-service is more likely to frustrate than help. In those cases, a phone number is what I want – a phone number answered by trained agents available 24/7.

Often these phone numbers are hard to find. When I do uncover one, I’m more likely dismayed than delighted. It might be that I’m calling outside of regular business hours, or maybe they are “experiencing a high volume of calls.” Often none of the IVR options applies. Somehow the message that “your call is important” – repeated at fifteen-second intervals – fails to comfort me. Maybe the hold music is distorted, too loud, or just plain grating. What if they disconnect me while on hold? What if I can’t understand the agent or visa-versa? And what if the rep doesn’t help me?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Customer service by phone can work. Call centers can answer the phone quickly, IVR can help, clear connections are possible, agents can use understandable English, and the right answers are attainable.

There are call centers that delight me with stellar phone support. Yes, I still sometimes attempt self-service, but calling is quicker and more satisfying – just as phone support should be.

Does your call center really serve callers, or does it push them to self-service?

[Peter will have more to say about this in his upcoming column “Medical Self-Service,” in the June/July issue of AnswerStat magazine.]

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Is Telecardiology Reason Enough for Telehealth Adoption?

By Julia Goebel, NotifyMD

One of the central intentions of the Affordable Care Act is to increase access to healthcare for all of us. With the numbers we’re looking at, it’s going to be difficult to do this without embracing telehealth. There will be a large influx of newly eligible patients and an increase in the need for doctors and other clinicians to care for these newly approved patients. Will there be enough face-to-face opportunities to deliver the care? If the answer is no, telehealth fills the gap.

Telehealth uses computers and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical healthcare and patient education. Some of the technologies used include access via the Internet, videoconferencing, streaming media, chat clients, and wireless communications such as smartphones, tablets, wearable sensors, and on-demand video libraries. Telehealth can improve access to care and save lives – including telecardiology when every second counts.

There is great promise in telehealth, but there are still a few barriers to actually offering it as a standard medical option. Telemedicine uses video communications in order to bring a physician’s expertise into areas where doctors can’t easily travel themselves. Hospitals and other care providers are using telehealth in many unique ways, but standardized use is still limited by some very real issues. Some of the barriers to standardized telehealth adoption include:

  • Many insurance companies don’t offer reimbursement for telehealth care. Check if your payer does.
  • An initial diagnosis via telemedicine may not be accepted as a legitimate exam by payers or administrative policies.
  • Doctors are required to be licensed in every state where they offer care, so doctors who are treating long-distance patients find themselves limited by the number of states where they carry a license.
  • Some patients do not have access to the necessary technology such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone for access to treatment.

While many agree that the potential benefits of using this modern technology application far outweigh the barriers to adoption, the road map to adoption and standards is far from clear today.

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GreatCall’s New Urgent Care App Tops iTunes and Google Play Medical Categories

First-of-its-kind telemedicine app to offer affordable, 24/7 healthcare to all Americans

GreatCall, Inc., a provider of wireless health and safety services for aging consumers and their families, announced that its free Urgent Care app leads the iTunes medical category as well as the Google Play medical category. Since launching in January, Urgent Care has become GreatCall’s fastest growing app by offering customers healthcare assistance with no insurance and no co-pay necessary.

Urgent Care provides individuals and families with 24/7 access to affordable, quality healthcare information and live medical specialists whenever and wherever they need it. No matter where a customer might be when they need help, whether during summer travel or while home at midnight. One can pay $3.99 to speak with a live registered nurse or board-certified physician, if necessary, to resolve medical issues without stepping foot in a doctor’s office. Callers can even receive common prescriptions, including antibiotics and antihistamines, to treat a wide range of conditions. Spanish-speakers can speak with bilingual nurses and translators are available for doctors.

“We speak with people around the country every day who are seeking convenient medical consultation without making an unnecessary trip to wait in the doctor’s office,” said Charlene Slaney, vice president of client and clinical services for Fonemed, the call service that staffs GreatCall’s registered nurses, who are available 24/7. “When a patient needs our help in the middle of the night, we can provide immediate answers and even save lives.”

“As the healthcare landscape changes, people are seeking innovative technology solutions to stay healthy and meet their medical needs,” said David Inns, president and CEO of GreatCall. “Nobody likes sitting in a waiting room, and our m-health products help consumers stay connected with high quality health information and services from home, which can save them time and money and provides relief to an overloaded national healthcare system.”

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NextPrinciples Extracts Real-Time Insights

Insight-To-Action Real-Time Analytics enable a wide variety of use cases for the pharmaceutical industry

NextPrinciples, a provider of social analytics and engagement, released real-time sentiment analytics leveraging SAP HANA® One to their Insight-To-Action platform. NextPrinciples presented with one of their pharmaceutical customers on May 16 at Sapphire Now to discuss the benefits of real-time sentiment analysis.

NextPrinciples shared two case studies on the use of social media in the pharmaceutical industry to dramatically improve reaction time and save lives. The use of the real-time analytics feature by a pharmaceutical company helped it to detect a potentially lethal product safety issue on two occasions. With the help of NextPrinciples, the company was able to proactively recall the products and prevent the loss of human life.

Pharmaceutical companies today are faced with the challenge of sifting through and reacting in real-time to the large volume of chatter on the social Web. NextPrinciples’ Insight-To-Action platform, powered by SAP HANA, allows companies to process millions of interactions in real-time to deliver deep, actionable insights. Companies can then take those interactions and easily integrate them into leading CRM systems such as Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, and SugarCRM.

“The healthcare industry is undergoing a digital revolution as consumers, healthcare professionals, and clinicians leverage the power of the Web to connect with others and research new therapies,” said Jim Lefevere, a digital health scholar with the Digital Health Coalition. “NextPrinciples, with its unique analytics, engagement, and integration capabilities, is at the forefront with an innovative platform that enables organizations to understand their competitive positioning, optimize their strategy, allocate their investments, and offer a more consistent customer experience.”

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Longer Allergy Seasons Mean More Anti-Allergy Efforts

The spring allergy season is underway, starting earlier this year due to warmer weather patterns, reports the March 2013 Harvard Health Letter. “When winter is shorter and less severe, it means there will be pollens and molds present for a longer period of time,” said Dr. Stacey Gray, an allergy expert at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

As a result, people with allergies need to be more proactive when it comes to fighting allergy symptoms. In addition to using antihistamines, nasal sprays, or decongestants, it’s important to take steps to minimize exposure to allergens such as tree pollen.

Start at home by making sure air conditioning and heating filters and vents are clean. Close windows and consider wearing a mask for outdoor yardwork. Better yet, avoid going outside when pollen levels are highest. Dr. Gray also recommends using nasal saline irrigations after working in the yard or being outside for an extended time.

Certain irritants in the environment – like cigarette smoke and air pollution – can also worsen allergy symptoms. Avoiding them if possible can help. It’s also a good idea to take precautions even before allergy season hits. One strategy Dr. Gray suggests is starting a nasal steroid spray a few weeks before spring allergies begin.

Read the full-length article here: “Fighting back against allergy season

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Lower Medicare Hospital Payment Rates Lead to Lower Rates for Private Payers

Health affairs study puts hospital cost-shifting myth to rest; hospital markets with relatively slow growth in Medicare inpatient payment rates also have slower growth in private rates

Contrary to the notion that hospitals charge private payers higher payment rates to offset lower Medicare rates, it turns out the opposite is true – lower Medicare payment rates lead to lower private rates for inpatient care, according to a study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) published in the May Health Affairs.

Historically, private insurers have paid higher rates than Medicare for inpatient hospital care, and the gap between Medicare and private rates widened from 45 percent in 1995 to 57 percent in 2009, the study found. The average Medicare payment rate per discharge in 2009 was $11,031, while the average private rate was $17,286. There are two possible explanations for the gap: either hospitals charge private payers more to compensate for lower Medicare payments, or hospitals can and do charge private payers more because of other factors, such as negotiating leverage.

“The study found that when Medicare pays lower rates for inpatient hospital care, private insurers’ rates end up growing more slowly, too – it’s the opposite of what hospitals would have the public believe,” said HSC senior researcher Chapin White, PhD, the study’s author. “Hospital executives, understandably, want higher payment rates from private payers. To put a socially acceptable spin on higher rates, they blame Medicare for being a stingy payer, but this study should put that notion to rest.”

The 2010 Affordable Care Act permanently slows the growth of Medicare payment rates for inpatient hospital care, the study concludes. “Repealing the cuts in Medicare payment rates would not only increase federal spending but would also accelerate the growth in private insurers’ costs and premiums.”Save