Robocalls: Effective patient engagement tool or annoying disruption?

In a typical week, the average consumer is bombarded with multiple robocalls, with pitches ranging from the promise of free groceries for answering a few questions to offers for low-cost health insurance. These irksome automated calls disrupt consumers day and night — during business meetings, family dinners and bedtime stories with children.

Despite attempts to crack down on them, the number of robocalls keeps growing. In fact, the epidemic reached a new all-time high volume of 5.2 billion robocalls in January 2019, surpassing the previous record set in October 2018 by slightly over 70 million robocalls, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking solution.

Technological advances have made it easy and inexpensive to send thousands of pre-recorded phone calls per minute using auto-dialers and fake caller IDs that make tracing hard.

The robocall pitches have reached such epidemic proportions that many consumers have had enough. According to a 2018 survey by Clutch, 67% of respondents are unlikely to pick up a phone call from a number they don’t recognize, 43% had signed up for the National Do Not Call Registry and 25% had implemented a tool for screening robocalls.

Despite efforts to thwart robocallers, the number of calls and complaints are climbing. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about robocalls jumped from 3.4 million in 2016 to 4.5 million in 2017.

The bottom line: Consumers are fed up with robocalls and are taking measures to protect themselves.

Robocalls in healthcare

While the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have rules in place to help curtail robocalls, not all of these calls are illegal. Laws generally require that callers obtain the prior consent of the called party before calls or text messages are made to wireless phones using autodialing equipment or an artificial or prerecorded message. However, the FCC granted an exemption to the consent requirements for certain types of healthcare-related calls. Those calls include appointment confirmations and reminders, hospital pre-registration instructions, and post-discharge follow-up intended to prevent readmission.

As consumers, most of us welcome automated calls reminding us of an upcoming appointment or that a prescription is ready for pick up. These calls are typically simple transactions, with no action required on our part and no need to have a conversation with a live person.

The same can’t be said of other types of healthcare robocalls, such as post-discharge follow up. While robocalls might be convenient from the healthcare provider’s point of view, eliminating the need to manually call each and every patient, nothing can take the place of the human connection after a stay in the hospital.

For starters, people are tired of robocalls. Many have stopped answering the phone when they see an unfamiliar number or hang up when they realize they’re listening to an automated recording. Bombarded with the typical robocall’s plethora of menu options, the patient may press a wrong button, which can lead to the provider receiving false data.

There’s also the potential that the wrong person answers the phone. I recall a situation a few years ago at my hospital where the recipient of a post-discharge follow up robocall inadvertently pressed a button indicating an emergent situation. The hospital followed up immediately, only to learn from the patient that their child had answered the robocall and that, fortunately, everything was actually fine. The situation resulted in emergency services personnel scrambling to help a patient that did not need assistance.

Perhaps most significantly, the opportunity to go beyond a “yes” or “no” response to uncover a high-risk situation or patient experience problem is lost. When it comes to healthcare, patients are on complex journeys and have stories to share. They want to have meaningful conversations and feel that their voices are heard — things that robocalls aren’t designed to do. For example, just because a patient has scheduled a follow-up appointment, it doesn’t mean he or she has a ride to get there.

A 2017 study of total hip and knee replacement highlighted the power of remote guidance and monitoring to stay connected to patients outside the four walls of the hospital. In the study, patients who underwent total joint replacement and who were enrolled in GetWell Loop cost an average of $656 less per case, experienced a 54% reduction in 90-day surgical complications and a 45% reduction in 90-day hospital readmissions. By using remote monitoring tools to assess risk in real time, care teams can respond quickly and avoid an escalation of complications and costs. Results like these demonstrate that the foundation of good care is great communication.

The power of personal engagement

It may be tempting to turn to robocalls to automate patient communication — a “set it and forget it” approach of sorts. However, at a time when consumer backlash and mistrust over robocalls has reached an all-time high, automating patient engagement with this technology is the wrong approach.

Engagement is neither a one-way relationship nor a checklist of questions requiring a “yes” or “no” response. It is about earning trust and connecting with people. The goal of healthcare is to deliver meaningful information and increase patient participation in their care. But without establishing trust, patients won’t engage or provide information that may be necessary to help with their recovery and ensure the best outcome possible.

To truly engage with patients, two-way conversations are essential to understanding their needs, concerns and health status. These interactions uncover important quality and service data that support an organization’s business objectives, while cultivating happier, healthier patients. And those are outcomes that no robocalling technology can achieve.