Will Automation Change the Role of the Veterinary Receptionist?

Our speakers for this discussion-based webinar were Alison Lambert, Kate McMorris, and Julien Renard. A bit different from the normal lecture-based webinars, this was a round-table discussion about how automation has changed work as a whole and how it has changed the role of the veterinary receptionist. It was really interesting to see how technology is changing the veterinary field outside of education – which we covered in a previous blog.

Receptionist: A passive role?

As one of our speakers put it, receptionist sounds passive. It sounds like you’re sitting there, fielding calls and that’s about it. But any one of us that has spent even a minute of our time helping or beside the desk knows that these team members are more akin to air traffic control than a call-handler.

It’s seeing the world coming, it’s acknowledgement, it’s anticipation, it’s interactive and proactive management of the client and patient journey.

At any one moment, there are calls from a client complaining, a client wanting refill prescriptions, a crying client and an emergency. There are calls coming in requesting certain vets, there’s schedule juggling, there’s follow-ups, there’s empathy. These team members are more suited to a title of “client-care coordinator” than anything else. So how could technology and automation in the veterinary industry replace them?

Ring, ring, ring….: Managing phone calls

A phone ringing off the hook is almost everyday normality in most veterinary surgeries. The biggest challenge that most receptionists (client-care coordinators) face is too many calls (62% of 600 respondents). Now with COVID, we’ve got the additional calls of “I’m in the carpark!” and “I’m ready to pay!” to field. So how do we use automation to manage that?

Part of the solution is to do what you can online. Booking an appointment doesn’t necessarily need to be done by phone, and some clients much prefer online booking. There are no busy tones, it’s quick, and its incredibly easy.

Be proactive. Making calls is quicker than receiving them. After a castrate, we ask clients to call back in a few days if there are any issues. You’re generating calls for the practice to sort through. Instead, why not send a check-in ping to their phone? It doesn’t even have to be a phone call. There are apps, texts, VetChat platforms, voice messages that all do the same job.

For payment, you can preauthorise payments online and ‘refund’ the amount unused. For example, preauthorising 150 pounds before an appointment, and taking out 30 pounds for consult fee and another 10 for a medication. No calls, no swiping, no contact. It sounds unbelievable but Kate McMorris at Seadown Veterinary Services has had great success.

The veterinary world is changing so fast. Receptionists on furlough left one job, and came back to an entirely different job.

Routine is a rhythm: Managing routine appointments.

Routine appointments like vaccine clinics and refilling prescriptions can be done in a much more streamlined way. Instead of a process that looks a bit like:

  • Ring receptionist and book appointment
  • Show up at clinic, call receptionist saying you are here and describing your car.
  • Receptionist lets vet know (through practice system) that the client is here.
  • Vet/Nurse collects patient.
  • Vaccine/Clinical exam etc.
  • Vet/Nurse gives patient back.
  • Calls receptionist letting them know they’re ready for payment.
  • Go back to receptionist for payment.

Seadown Veterinary Services have been doing it completely differently. You can book a routine appointment ahead of time. Do a health form online. Pre-authorise payments. Show up in the car park – they already have your car details. Your pup gets picked up, checked over, vaccinated, and the payment comes out automatically from the pre-authorised payment. Bing, bang, boom. Done.

Repeat prescriptions are done in much the same way, although without the clinical exam. Personally I’m a bit on the fence about this – what if the patient has a poorly leg that wasn’t mentioned? How many times have you been talking to an owner and they ‘let slip’ a critical piece of information that they had thought was unnecessary to mention. As a start though, which all of this is, it’s quite innovative.

Changing how we do things: Managing the role of “Receptionist”

At the beginning of COVID, receptionists were often some of the first furloughed staff. Nurses then became the receptionists and were stretched thin helping vets, organising things, and also looking after inpatients. When receptionists came back, they came back to an entirely different job.

In the case where automation becomes the norm, where appointments are booked online and there are no more phones ringing, what is the role of the receptionist? Are we looking at mass redundancy?

It’s time to take advantage of what receptionists – client-care coordinators – are actually good at. Empathy, emergency triage if necessary, filtering out unimportant calls (1am refills of osurnia? Definitely not an emergency). When you call a vet practice, you don’t want to hear an automated system, you want to hear a friendly voice reassuring you that everything will be okay and how about you bring Billy in to the vets.

Admin is the work for the robots and the technology. That is, organising appointments and schedules and rotas. Empathy is the work for the humans.

We’ve been through 20 years of change in the past 4 months.

Why are we so slow?

When we look at the airline industry – when’s the last time you called an airline company to book a flight? It’s all online. When is the last time you called a hotel? Admittedly these are different industries, but how come the healthcare industry is lagging behind?

We’re slow at non-clinical decisions. We need better chairs, better management software, a better software but it often takes practices months on months to get these sorted. As soon as a patient comes in with a severe anaemia though, we’re on that like white on rice. I have an idea that perhaps we’re slow with these non-clinical decisions because they take second place to the clinical decisions. Which is right, they should, but we also can’t deny that our delay in adopting new systems is undoubtedly having a negative effect on animal care. Maybe it’s time we catch up to the rest of the world.

To go back to pre-COVID-19 would be madness. It just wasn’t working.

This was a fascinating discussion, and because it’s not clinical based it’s incredibly accessible to all levels. Alison Lambert is particularly quotable, and all quotes in this article are hers. Have a listen to this great thought-provoking and forward looking discussion here


Community Links

If you’re particularly enthralled by this webinar discussion, or if you just want to share something interesting that you’ve learned over the past week, check out our Facebook page. We use it as a space to share cases from around the world, direct you to resources, and generally have it as a space to chat amongst international veterinary professionals. Looking forward to seeing you there!