Managing Your Practice

Office etiquette: Answering patient phone calls


In my office, one of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a dramatic increase in telephone traffic. I’m sure there are multiple reasons for this, but a major one is calls from patients who remain reluctant to visit our office in person.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

Our veteran front-office staff members were adept at handling phone traffic at any level, but most of them retired because of the pandemic. The young folks who replaced them have struggled at times. You would think that millennials, who spend so much time on phones, would have little to learn in that department – until you remember that Twitter, Twitch, and TikTok do not demand polished interpersonal skills.

To address this issue, I have a memo in my office, which I have written, that establishes clear rules for proper professional telephone etiquette. If you want to adapt it for your own office, feel free to do so:

1. You only have one chance to make a first impression. Even now, in the era of texting and email, the telephone remains our primary point of contact with new and long-time patients. The way we answer it determines, to a significant extent, how the community thinks of us, as people and as health care providers.

2. Answer all incoming calls before the third ring.

3. Answer warmly, enthusiastically, and professionally. Since the caller cannot see you, your voice is the only impression of our office a first-time caller will get.

4. Identify yourself and our office immediately. “Good morning, Doctor Eastern’s office. This is _____. How may I help you?” No one should ever have to ask what office they have reached, or to whom they are speaking.

5. Speak softly. This is to ensure confidentiality (more on that next), and because most people find loud telephone voices unpleasant.

6. Maintaining patient confidentiality is a top priority. It makes patients feel secure about being treated in our office, and it is also the law. Keep in mind that patients and others in the office may be able to overhear your phone conversations. Keep your voice down; never use the phone’s hands-free “speaker” function.

Be cautious about all information that is given over the phone. Don’t disclose any personal information unless you are absolutely certain you are talking to the correct patient. If the caller is not the patient, never discuss personal information without the patient’s permission.

7. Adopt a positive vocabulary – one that focuses on helping people. For example, rather than saying, “I don’t know,” say, “Let me find out for you,” or “I’ll find out who can help you with that.”

8. Offer to take a message if the caller has a question or issue you cannot address. Assure the patient that the appropriate staffer will call back later that day. That way, office workflow is not interrupted, and the patient still receives a prompt (and correct) answer.

9. All messages left overnight with the answering service must be returned as early as possible the very next business day. This is a top priority each morning. Few things annoy callers trying to reach their doctors more than unreturned calls. If the office will be closed for a holiday, or a response will be delayed for any other reason, make sure the service knows, and passes it on to patients.

10. Everyone in the office must answer calls when necessary. If you notice that a phone is ringing and the receptionists are swamped, please answer it; an incoming call must never go unanswered.

11. If the phone rings while you are dealing with a patient in person, the patient in front of you is your first priority. Put the caller on hold, but always ask permission before doing so, and wait for an answer. Never leave a caller on hold for more than a minute or two unless absolutely unavoidable.

12. NEVER answer, “Doctor’s office, please hold.” To a patient, that is even worse than not answering at all. No matter how often your hold message tells callers how important they are, they know they are being ignored. Such encounters never end well: Those who wait will be grumpy and rude when you get back to them; those who hang up will be even more grumpy and rude when they call back. Worst of all are those who don’t call back and seek care elsewhere – often leaving a nasty comment on social media besides.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a long-time monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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