This is part one in a two-part series. You can read part two here.

Being a health professional means that a lot of people are counting on your expertise in their times of trouble. Since you can’t reasonably be available to all your patients all the time, it’s important to choose a medical answering service whose philosophy is consistent with your own. It can be overwhelming trying to choose between the many medical answering services available today, but you can eliminate many of the players on the field by simply asking these questions:

When are you available to answer calls?

Not all answering services are created equally. In fact, many operate within a given window of time, instead of being set up to take calls 24/7. If a medical answering service can’t take your overflow calls and also handle your after-hours patients, you should keep shopping. Any busy medical practice will eventually need both services, it saves you time and hassle to hire the right answering service you need the first time.

Who answers the phone for a medical answering service?

Who answers the phone is as important a question as any, since often your patients are calling because they believe they have a medically urgent problem. When a medical answering service leaves the answering to the computer and a difficult to navigate maze of menus, your patients may get the feeling that you don’t care about their concerns. Real, live operators are the best way to let them know you’re there for them, even when you can’t be.

How do I get messages from patients?

Most answering services can serve up your messages in a variety of ways, but if what they offer doesn’t work with your practice, there’s no point in hiring them. Beyond simply choosing the delivery method that works best for you, you need to be able to specify the intervals at which you’ll receive messages so that none of your patients are left too long wondering and worrying if you’ll call back.

What is your policy on emergency calls?

Patients may primarily call to reschedule appointments or ask simple medical questions, but in the middle of the night, these calls can be real emergencies. Find out how your future medical answering service handles emergency calls long before you have to deal with one. Do they allow you to specify the plan or will you get the call regardless of your instructions? Can you rotate doctors who are on call for emergencies? These are the questions you’ll wish you had asked after being on-call for weeks straight.

Do you have a plan for natural disasters or other major emergencies?

Your patients need to know that you’re there for them, no matter what. An answering service with a disaster plan in place, redundant systems and experience handling crisis is a valuable partner in these rare, but frightening circumstances.

Of course, finding the best medical answering service is about much more than simple customer service. Although customer service is a vital part of the selection, data security and patient privacy is equally important. We’ll cover the ins and outs of HIPAA-compliancy for medical answering services in part two of this two-part series.