This is part one in a two-part series. Part two is here.

Medical offices are just one type of business that never stops.

Not only do patients need you at all hours of the day and night, but by the nature of this line of work, they may also have sudden, unpredictable problems. You may feel like you should staff someone 24/7 to keep the phones open, but that really isn’t practical or cost-effective. What’s more, customers can get the same level of service from a medical answering service at a fraction of the cost of full-time employees. Choosing a virtual receptionist isn’t an easy task, though, especially for the medical industry.

Before you jump into hiring a telephone answering service, make sure you’ve asked these important questions of your potential candidates:

How are calls answered? Your patients are more than just customers inquiring about a product — they are often frightened, in pain, frustrated or in need of comfort from another human. If your patients are forced to go through a maze of menus to reach a live person, this may not be the right medical answering service for them or for you.

Do you handle emergency calls? Some answering services are very cut and dry, offering only basic services — there’s no protocol to specify what happens if an emergency call comes through. Because your patients are likely calling when they feel something is very wrong, there must be an option to establish emergency protocols for weekdays, weekends, vacations and more.

Are you experienced at answering medical calls? Answering medical calls is nothing like taking after-hours calls for a cleaner, real estate company or taxi service. The people who call are often in real distress and may share potentially delicate information with the service they believe is acting on behalf of the doctor. Although answering services can adapt their practices to accommodate the special nature of medical calls, it’s better to hire a team that’s already trained and ready to go.

Is your company fully HIPAA-compliant? Besides the basic trust your customers place in you to always protect their private data, anyone you hire to take your calls is considered an associate of your practice and must be HIPAA-compliant. Ask about secure messaging and other HIPAA-friendly services. If a potential service doesn’t take HIPAA compliance seriously, do what’s best for your practice and your patients and walk away.

Your patients trust you and your team to care for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even though you can’t be available all the time, you can expand your reach with the help of an experienced medical answering service. Finding the right one isn’t always easy, though, so we’ll give you even more ideas for hiring the right service in part two of this blog post.