Speech-enabled phone programs can enhance member health, loyalty

May 1, 2007

As more health plans turn to automated, speech-enabled calls to reach out to members with welcome programs, preventive health reminders, or with more sensitive information about a specific condition, they must use an appropriate approach. Done correctly, such phone programs can provide a cost-effective way to speak with members.

As more health plans turn to automated, speech-enabled calls to reach out to members with welcome programs, preventive health reminders, or with more sensitive information about a specific condition, they must use an appropriate approach. Done correctly, such phone programs can provide a cost-effective way to speak with members on a one-to-one basis about important health and benefit issues.

Alexandra Drane is co-founder and senior vice president of Eliza Corp., which designs, develops and hosts speech recognition software applications. She is also a member of the Health Executive Leadership Network.

Today, health plans use phone-based, speech-enabled outreach to yield positive outcomes, such as increasing enrollment in health management programs by up to 70%. Plans have measured response rates (defined as a member responding to a call to action) that are up to 25 times greater than mail and 15 times greater than e-mail outreach across many programs. And proactive outreach that addresses members' concerns about changes to benefit structure has offset call center volume by up to 80%.

Although automation may enable health plans to call thousands of people in an hour, it also demands that each call offer personally relevant information, so members will take such calls in the future.

Recognize that when you call a member, you are asking that person to stop what they are doing and give five minutes of their undivided attention. Therefore, you must immediately engage them through interactive conversations that offer information, acknowledge responses, and provide necessary support.

Note that with this kind of outreach, a member is hearing – not reading – information. Therefore, every word counts.

This kind of approach, created with the member in mind, helps engage members in a conversation: hang-up rates on these calls are in the single digits, on par with live callers.

Listen and learn

Many behind-the-scenes techniques can determine the success rate of this opportunity to speak one-on-one with members. Consider the speech recognition engine, for example. The most effective ones are tuned specifically for the unique challenges of healthcare outreach, such as people with hearing loss, raspy voices and slower than average responses. As a result, outreach to a Medicare beneficiary may be slower and louder than a more streamlined call to a young adult raised on video games.

The most successful automated programs do more than blast out information. By branching logic and real-time transfers, the programs also solicit and actively respond to member feedback. This may include responses to explicit questions to more implicit findings, such as noting what time of day a specific population is most receptive to calls.

Tailor outreach to global, local, and individual needs

Health plans are using these rich interactions to learn more about members at the global, local, and eventually, the individual level – and applying the findings to overall communication strategies.

For example, one speech-enabled diabetes program reached out to English and Spanish speakers. The Spanish-speaking members were approximately 20% more likely to have a recent diagnosis, and 46% reported feeling that they are not in control of their condition. That is double the amount of English speakers who felt that way. The Spanish-speaking population was also more likely to want to hear more about long-term risks of diabetes.

While at the global level we know most people respond better to positive, motivating language, at a local level, certain populations may be more receptive to hearing about what may happen if they take responsibility for their health.

Cost-effectively increase the reach

At high volumes, speech-enabled outreach is priced competitively to – and often lower than – direct mail. Third-party researchers have measured dramatic savings when comparing speech-enabled outreach to live agents. Further cost savings are realized when considering how this approach can offset call center volume. Furthermore, the platform's virtually unlimited bandwidth enables the ability to reach vast numbers of members simultaneously.

Keep communication lines open

When designed and deployed with the member in mind, speech-enabled outreach can be a cost-effective way to help plans learn how best to respect, engage, support, and enable individuals to make healthy behavior change. This kind of positive experience will contribute to a member's overall health while leaving the communication lines open for the future.