By Paul Gipson
External communications are one of the most important elements in healthcare business operations today. However, many healthcare-related businesses were not prepared to face a global pandemic, and communications can become more complicated in unprecedented times. This has left many companies to wonder about the most appropriate ways to engage patients while maintaining legal compliance.
An important factor in effective communication is customer empowerment, meaning the patient feels their individual voice is heard; this builds trust and enriches relationships. It is even more crucial for healthcare telemarketers to be knowledgeable about the laws that govern them, which includes the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). When engaging in outbound communications, it’s vital to understand the pandemic’s effect on TCPA guidelines. While the TCPA remains intact, there are several restrictions that have been implemented because of the pandemic.
Often, a healthcare telemarketer’s biggest challenge is ensuring effective communication in an environment where spam calls are prevalent. Robocallers are thriving on the large number of people working from home. Many impersonate the IRS and health insurance companies in an attempt to collect funds. This leaves patients feeling wary of healthcare telemarketers, and many often refrain from answering the phone entirely, especially when calls reflect no caller identification. Fewer answered calls can have a drastic effect on a business and its sales if the business is reliant on telemarketing as a sales mechanism.
A best practice for effective telemarketers is to monitor practices to ensure they comply with calling prohibitions outlined in the TCPA.
The TCPA and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) have specific requirements for sales call practices. One of these sales practices includes the prohibition of call abandonment. Sometimes when healthcare telemarketers dial in a “predictive manner,” a call is answered by a patient or consumer but no agent is available to talk on the other end of the line. This happens when a predictive dialer places multiple calls at once and “predicts” that only one consumer will answer, but more than one actually answers. If companies are calling predictively, a message must be played to the consumer to indicate who was calling and why, as well as provide an automated opt-out mechanism. If there is no automated message, the company is not within the compliance requirements of the TCPA and the TSR. Abandoning more than 3% of phone calls (per campaign per 30 days) is prohibited.
Healthcare companies must also be cognizant of calling times. Outbound calls can only be completed during the hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. based on the consumer’s location. Further, healthcare telemarketers must be aware of the patient’s time zone. In an instance where a patient’s address and phone number hail from separate time zones, telemarketers would be best advised to use the address’s time zone—addresses are more likely to be updated and changed over time than phone numbers.
It is crucial that telemarketers deliver a disclosure to the patient stating the company’s name, the reason for the call, and whether the call is being recorded. This allows for the avoidance of any illegal recordings, even unintentionally illegal ones, that can lead to complaints and lawsuits.
Calling individuals against their will could lead to legal enforcement and will certainly reflect poorly on a business. The TCPA recommends keeping do-not-call requests for five years, so recordkeeping is crucial when navigating calling lists.
Auto-dialing, originally deemed the dialing of random phone numbers, now includes predictive dialer calls. If a device has the capacity to dial phones without human intervention, it is likely an auto-dialer. To send marketing messages or calls with an auto-dialer, prior written consent is needed. Of course, do-not-call lists still apply in these cases and should be observed.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, answer rates have been increasing. Despite changing restrictions due to state of emergency declarations, only New York and Louisiana have made restrictions on telemarketing. Calls about debt collection have additional restrictions in Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. As per state of emergency guidelines, all states must allow emergency calls, which includes robocalls. Emergency calls or text messages containing information affecting the health and safety of the consumer are allowed.
In the current pandemic, if a call or text is in relation to the coronavirus, it is only deemed an emergency if it is from a hospital, healthcare provider, or state health official, or if it details an imminent safety risk. The national state of emergency is not a time to avoid call restrictions and claim there is a coronavirus relation. To ensure that dialing and texting records are maintained, company executives should listen in on calls. If an agent seems to have a lesser volume, organizations would be wise to investigate whether they are dialing on a personal line without record.
Home offices are now an extension of the office environment. Collecting information should be done through a different mechanism—for example, a transfer to a supervisor or putting the call through an interactive voice response.
Healthcare companies should educate employees on ongoing changes in TCPA regulations. They should further review third-party and client contractual requirements to ensure that security responsibilities are defined and addressed. Overall, this challenging time presents many changes, but staying compliant and communicative ensures a productive and cohesive work environment.
Paul Gipson is the director of marketing compliance services for CompliancePoint, a subsidiary of PossibleNOW. Learn more here.