Skulking about at the back of the dictionary, the obscure word
’triage’ may now have lost its chance for a moment of glory on Call My
Bluff. Napoleonic by pedigree, it’s a method for allocating scarce
resources, particularly for the medical treatment of war casualties:
deciding those who can be saved by the surgeon and those who can’t.
The modern version of triage is rather more sophisticated. Patients ring
a helpline, their symptoms are checked off against a computer program
and they’re advised whether to head for the local chemist, their
doctor’s waiting room or the emergency department at their local
Already a success in the US, it’s being tested by the National Health
Service in Northumberland and Preston, under the name NHS Direct. If
it’s rolled out nationally, it should reduce the number of people with
minor ailments cluttering up doctors’ surgeries and emergency
departments because they don’t know what to do. It should also boost the
role of the telephone in healthcare, by making the helpline concept more
Telemarketing is one of the most dynamic sectors of the UK economy, with
the number of call centres growing at 40 per cent a year. But
health-related industries have been slow to use it, compared with, say,
financial services or charities.
There are, of course, good reasons for this, including restrictions on
promoting pharmaceuticals direct to the public, and the need for
expertise when giving medical advice. Equally, there are some excellent
examples of the telephone being harnessed to boost marketing efforts -
especially when a fairly broad view is taken of healthcare.
Take private health insurance, where attrition is a problem. After two
or three years, a high percentage of new policy holders start asking
themselves why they’re paying out and getting nothing back. The insurer,
PPP, has responded by launching its own 24-hour, health information
line, staffed by qualified nurses, midwives, and so on. Policy holders
can call at any time, even if the query is as mundane as why the baby
The helpline, which is said to have improved customer loyalty by 50 per
cent, is run by Access 24, a telemarketing bureau specialising in
Now a fully-owned subsidiary of PPP, it also works for clients such as
Bayer, Boots, Durex and Roche. The bureau has recently published the
results of research into why patients don’t take their medicine.
Two-thirds of doctors interviewed estimate that up to half their
patients do not comply with their medication. With doctors and nurses
facing severe pressure on their time, Access 24’s recommendation is a
helpline which patients can call if they have trouble with their
medicine or are suffering side-effects. More than 70 per cent of
patients say they would be happy to have a helpline number on their
The process could be taken further, as it is in the US, with a bureau
calling a patient regularly to provide support and encourage
Another leading bureau, the Merchants Group, has provided a team of
operators to work at Smith-Kline Beecham’s premises in Welwyn Garden
City. Their role is to support the client’s vaccine service by calling
6,000 doctors and nurses on an agreed schedule, booking orders and
passing on data about new products. ’We research our customers at least
twice a year, and the reaction is that they appreciate this service and
like the staff’s depth of knowledge,’ SmithKline Beecham’s customer
satisfaction manager, Sally Goode, says.
Elsewhere in SmithKline Beecham, the telephone is being used to support
smokers who are trying to quit with the help of its NiQuitin CQ nicotine
patch therapy. Customers can enroll for personal help. Over the phone,
they’re taken through a long and detailed questionnaire, probing their
smoking habits and motivation. They are then sent a highly personalised
cessation programme, followed by more mailings at key intervals.
Omnicom’s telemarketing bureau, InTelMark, provides a helpline for
The task is to talk patients through the process of monitoring their
blood glucose levels. InTelMark’s managing director, Mark Osman, says
the operators are trained communicators rather than nurses, but the
client provides refresher training with a range of monitoring equipment
’Where medical equipment or pharmaceutical products are involved,
callers are likely to be distressed, agitated, irrational or
Being able to handle the call empathetically, while conveying the
relevant information, requires strong communication skills,’ Osman
Diane Stafford is Access 24’s new sales and marketing director and a
former marketer with Unilever and Pizza Hut.
She says: ’One-to-one marketing and building relationships with
individual customers is going to be so much more important in the
future. Put healthcare on top of that, and the combination is very
Undoubtedly the sector will expand, but there are barriers which will
set limits on how far.
Cost, coupled with restrictions on promoting directly to the public, are
major obstacles. Charlene Bargeron, the managing director of Greenlines
Healthcare Communications, has been involved in projects for women’s
health helplines which failed because of funding difficulties.
’Manufacturers have smaller budgets for activities which don’t promote
specific products,’ she admits.
There is also the challenge from alternative forms of communication.
The Grayling PR agency runs a colds and flu helpline for a consortium of
over-the-counter manufacturers. Staffed by pharmacists, it currently
handles a modest 65 calls a week from sniffling cold sufferers. On the
other hand, the same programme’s website gets 1,200 visits a week.
Either the internet is more convenient, or computer nerds are