Triage Answering Service Operator wearing glasses and a headset stands in front of a triage nurse holding a clipboard and wearing a stethoscope.

Are Answering Service Operators Asking the Right Questions?

When a patient calls a nurse triage phone line, they’re first greeted by an answering service. This includes an operator whose job it is to ask questions regarding the reason for the patient’s call, which allows patient requests to be organized into urgent and non-urgent categories for nurse triage staff to address. However, there are times when the complaint an operator documents isn’t reflective of the severity of the patient’s problem. Why does this happen, and how can it be avoided?

First, Answering Service Operators usually don’t ask detailed questions. This is because they’re responsible for routing patient calls and requests, rather than giving dispositions on care. If a patient requests a medication refill, for instance, but the operator doesn’t ask them if they’re experiencing any symptoms, the triage nurse who responds will likely treat it as non-urgent.

Second, patients may underreport their symptoms (unless asked specifically). In the same example above, the caller may also fail to mention the symptoms they’re experiencing. This could be because they either want to talk to a nurse about them directly, or they don’t view their symptoms as a concern.

Both factors have the potential to lead to health complications and reports of negligence. Many healthcare-related lawsuits come from patients who experience a bad outcome from delay in care. Obviously, patients can’t be expected to know all of the information that’s important for them to share, so improvement must start with giving better guidelines and instruction to the answering service operators.

Let’s consider another example, where a patient tells the Answering Service Operator that they’re experiencing a “persistent cough.” Rather than only document “cough” in the note to the nurse, the ASO should then follow-up by asking the patient if they have any respiratory distress, i.e. difficulty breathing. If they answer yes, a triage nurse receiving the message will recognize its urgency and act accordingly.

So how do operators know what to ask their callers? Like any effective system, they need a format with algorithms or protocols that outline the questions that are required, based on what the caller tells them. TriageLogic already uses algorithms like these in its answering service support and triage software. We’ve seen firsthand how it’s improved health documentation, nurse communication and liability, as well as patient outcomes.

If you’d like to use the same for your practice, or would like our nurses to answer your patient questions when your office is closed, let us know.

Learning Center: courses and videos, learn more about telephone triage

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