Who generally calls the lab, and what answers are they looking for?

A: In my experience, calls coming into the lab largely involve questions about turnaround times (TATs), specimen requirements, and test selection. These callers consist of ordering physicians, nurses, staff at ambulatory clinics and other medical laboratory locations, and outreach clients.

Which lab staff should handle incoming calls from clinicians or clients?

A general principle for operating an efficient laboratory is to have all team members functioning at the top of their abilities. With this in mind, one of the first goals when managing incoming calls is to direct calls away from staff such as clinical laboratory scientists, whose primary focus should be performing testing. Not only is it inefficient to have clinical laboratory scientists handle TAT calls, but these distractions can result in testing errors. By ensuring the correct staff handle calls, labs can increase efficiency and improve the quality of patient care.

Designating entry-level staff to handle incoming phone calls is a great first step toward achieving optimal productivity. However, in a smaller laboratory, these individuals are sometimes the same staff who receive and process specimens, and excessive interruptions for them also can lead to testing errors. A dedicated client services group is therefore the ideal solution, and call volumes can often justify these positions, especially if the laboratory handles a significant amount of outside testing.

What tools are available to help manage calls?

An effective phone tree is an important tool for triaging calls to the most appropriate staff. A typical call flow would be three to four rings each at client services, then specimen receiving, and lastly at a testing section. I know clients who have even changed their testing section phone extensions to redirect callers who were in the habit of contacting them directly.

Understanding the source and subject of incoming calls allows for more proactive solutions. Logging call information is a key first step. A powerful but complex solution is to implement customer relationship management (CRM) software. The sky is the limit (both in capabilities and cost) with these types of solutions, which allow for sophisticated reporting and for client services, lab management, and sales teams to share information. CRMs are most appropriate for laboratories that serve a large number of outside clients. If a CRM isn’t feasible, it may be easier to implement a paper- or spreadsheet-based log, but compiling the data into a usable format is time-consuming. Another simple but limited solution for counting and categorizing calls is to ask lab staff to place a small item like a bead into labeled bins whenever they take a call. These containers can be categorized by call topic or client type. Although not as sophisticated, this method places a low burden on staff while providing some basic statistics on call frequency.

How can the lab reduce the number of incoming calls?

Look upstream to understand why your laboratory is receiving so many calls. Requests for specimen and test information can be reduced by implementing an online laboratory test directory (LTD). Ensure that all callers are aware of the LTD and refer them to it for questions related to specimen requirements. Also, communicate TAT information in as many places as possible. In addition to the LTD, TAT information can be built into test names in the ordering system and included in the initial message of the laboratory call tree.

If a disproportionate number of calls relate to a particular issue or come from a specific group (as can be determined with call logging), targeted education may be helpful. Creating a laboratory formulary is another valuable initiative that can reduce call volume. A laboratory formulary results in a simplified list of tests in the ordering system, which can make ordering easier for clinicians, while also eliminating confusion and questions related to esoteric reference tests.

David Shiembob, MBA, C(ASCP)CM, is the supervisor of consultative services at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City. +Email: [email protected]