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Customer Service Trends in Opposite Directions

We’ve long ranted about the diminishing human factor in customer (dis)service, and we see nothing that’s changed our opinion. However, the medical profession – specifically physicians – appear to be bucking that trend. Just be aware that there may be a cost.

Customer service has traditionally been a cost center for any business. Using technology to eliminate people has been seen as a way to reduce costs dramatically. Let’s look at two examples: self-checkout and chatbots.

Self-checkout in supermarkets has certainly eliminated a lot of positions. The same scanners that made it possible for cashiers to scan items and for shoppers to use credit or debit cards have made it possible for shoppers to do the same work for themselves. Yes, the scanners can break down, but they can usually be back in service quickly. Humans need breaks during the day and sometimes need to call in sick. Scanners don’t need benefits.

However, even with security cameras all over the place and in plain sight, shoplifters have found self-checkout stations to be a haven for their activities. It’s easy not to scan every item in a cart and essentially walk out with stolen goods. Losses are mounting. You can be sure changes will be coming.

As for chatbots, they’re getting better, but AI programmers still can’t replicate our comfort levels in talking to humans – especially humans who can understand the nuances of our native languages. If you have a complicated customer service issue, a human being in whom you have confidence will be much better able to help you resolve an issue.

It’s our opinion that a human armed with fast access to all the relevant data can help solve problems and answer questions much more effectively. And that’s where physicians are showing the way.

A 2021 study in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association found that messages to doctors in patient portals increased by 157 percent between early 2020 and late 2021. And national data through mid-2022 show that the rates have stayed that high or even slightly increased. Doctors report spending two hours or more – after hours – responding to patient inquiries, some involving complex issues.

Some doctors have begun dealing with overflowing patient emails and the time spent on them by charging patients or their insurers for some of them (which can generate a patient co-pay), adding staff members to help with patient queries, and setting rules of email etiquette for that medical practice. Some larger healthcare institutions have begun to charge for email time.

Universal guidelines about email communication between patients and their providers won’t necessarily work because doctors and doctor practices have different cultures. Adding a charge to receive messages on complex health topics and using these messages in place of some appointments means doctors can devote more concentrated time to messages, which can require a lot of medical expertise to answer a question comprehensively.

While it’s not the same as an office visit, video conference, or phone call, the message in the portal is more personal than a chatbot and can lead to better patient or customer service from the doctor or healthcare entity. It’s a concept that establishes a value for the provider’s expertise.

We like the idea of using technology to expand the human reach in sensitive personal issues, and we like the idea of using internet-based portals for exchanging messages. Email is not a secure means of communication, but the portals can be made as secure as financial websites, which also use portal-like technology to communicate with individuals. That puts the responsibility on you to make sure your technology is secure.

We can help with a security audit and the installation and configuration of security patches, bug fixes, and additional security measures. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for an appointment.