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Using chatbot technology to improve referral management

Using chatbot technology for our referral management service has resulted in increased efficiency and a better experience for patients.

Background
Our Referral Management Centre (RMC) makes bookings when a patient is referred (usually by their GP) to see a specialist. The patient can call to make an appointment, or they may be called by the RMC. In either case the patient will be offered an appointment at a number of local hospitals.

The RMC team uses the NHS Digital e-Referrals system and the Integrated Care Gateway (ICG) referrals system developed by software developer Accenda. The 56-strong call centre team were making and receiving in the region of 1,200 – 1,800 calls per day 8am – 6pm with an average 40 seconds wait time.

In September 2019 the RMC and MLCSU’s Digital Innovation Unit reviewed this ‘calling out’ process. Approximately half of calls were unanswered meaning an ineffective use of staff time and, if unable to leave a message, no value was added to the patient or service.

Action
We introduced chatbots (developed by Arcus Global) to automate outbound calls. Patients answering the call are directed to a call handler. When calls are not answered, a message is left by the bot where possible. The aim was to greatly reduce human intervention where there was currently little or no outcome to the call and also create capacity within the team to focus on delivering an excellent service to the incoming calls.

A live pilot study commenced in February 2020.

Impact
Using a mixture of SMS messages, calls and the occasional letter as a last resort, the centre has seen a 94 per cent reduction in time taken to make outbound calls and over 60 per cent of patients are reached.

The RMC is now saving around 1.3FTE staff time per day to concentrate on patient services.

Qualitative benefits are also being recognised, such as ensuring calls that are made benefit patients and the improvement in staff morale in not having to listen to voicemails or make fruitless outbound calls.

Following this success, the Digital Innovation Unit is using voice automation to improve other processes for customers as well as for the CSU.