Operators set the tone for VA experience
Rosaire Bushey, Salem VAMC
Even though they’re rarely seen, six contracted switchboard operators make up the first line of support for the entire Salem VA Medical Center.
At the same time patients’ appointments were moved out of the hospital and to online, telehealth, and video appointments with the outbreak of COVID-19, the telephone switchboard saw an uptick of more than 10 percent in the number of calls to the facility.
“It started when people heard a gate was closed,” said Stephanie Morgan, operator supervisor. “Our calls used to be largely about appointment dates and non-VA billing, but now we get a lot of calls if providers are a few minutes late to a patient’s video or telehealth appointments, and we have to connect them to their providers.”
To help process all the calls that come in, Morgan manages six operators in staggered shifts to cover the switchboard starting at 6 a.m. The operators, to include Jackie Pierce and Beth Smith who take the night shift, are off the air by 11 p.m. when the admissions section takes over.
Each of the four daytime operators has their own specialty and place within the group, according to Morgan, who is known as the ‘happy one.’ Staff and patients might know her voice from the morning pager testing announcements - a live message she repeats each day.
“I tell everyone that people can hear when we smile,” Morgan said. “It’s a lesson I learned working in radio and so I always smile when I answer the phone because it helps people feel valued and that’s a big deal. We are the first, and sometimes the only person a Veteran will talk to, so we’re here to make them feel valued and make them want to continue choosing the VA.”
Morgan introduced smiling exercises to the team and Mitch Mullens, who has been an operator for 14 years, and who is the dry-witted, technically savvy member of the team, listened to himself on a recording and then again when he smiled. “It sounds strange, but it absolutely works,” he said.
In addition to offering a friendly voice, the operators also need to be prepared for a wide variety of contingencies – from comic-book-sized on-call rosters to counting alarm bells so they’re ready to give community firefighters directions to an alarm activation.
Margaret Morrison, a 16-year veteran of the team, has a special place as the operator whose soothing voice and demeanor calms people. She’s also the first person to absorb suicide policy and she ensures the rest of the team knows and understands the current protocols.
“Unfortunately, we’ll get a number of calls each year with people who say they are thinking of harming themselves,” Morrison said. “I’ve had to talk to more than a few, and most of us have spoken to someone whose gone through that point in their life.”
“Margaret is great at talking with them while someone else gets a professional on the line, she has a very calming and soothing way with people that’s really important in a healthcare setting like this,” Morgan said.
Many of the calls the team receives require more than finding a phone number, and that’s where Joe Wright comes in. For 13 years Joe has been the group’s detective, ferreting out answers quickly to get patients where they need to go. Sometimes it takes a little questioning to figure out exactly what the Veteran needs, and other times, it’s pretty obvious.
“I had a guy call once who had cut his leg with an axe while he was chopping wood,” Wright said. “He wanted to know if he should go to the emergency room. That was a pretty easy call. But sometimes they want to talk about Medicare or things we just don’t have the answer to, so we have to hunt around a bit. We try to help everyone.”
Every day the operators get calls that run the gamut from someone who is in a hurry and just needs the number to a clinic, to those who are more chatty and want to engage in conversations across the entire range of political viewpoints. Through it all, the operators’ goal is to be calm, efficient, and quick.
“If someone wanted a job here and listed as a qualification that they liked to talk to people, I wouldn’t hire them,” Morgan said. “Our average interaction lasts 15-20 seconds. We ask yes or no questions – not because we don’t care, but because our goal is to get the Veteran where they need to go quickly.
“And we’ve got to be calm because there are some people who get very upset and they might take that out on us. We understand it’s not personal, but we’ve got to manage the conversation and be the gentle voice of reason and get them where they need to be – hopefully in a better mood then when they called; a mood that will result in a more positive healthcare experience.”
There are limits to what the operators will put up with though. Threatening, cursing and abusive language will earn a caller a dial tone. “Eighty-five percent of our callers are sweet people and we get to know them by their voice after a while,” Morgan said. “But sometimes we’ll have to hang up on someone, and when we do, they almost always call back and apologize.”
For the Veterans who call and for the hospital providers, the operators are a faceless voice providing a first line of support and often setting the tone to a successful healthcare experience.