CAMPAIGN REPORT ON HEALTHCARE: On call - Telemarketing provides some healthcare companies with a golden opportunity to win loyalty from customers - despite the restrictive regulations

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.

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

won’t sleep.

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

prescribed medicines.

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

every month.

’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


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