Rapid refills

Saturday, September 30, 2006

In a rare move for an HME provider, the Amherst, N.Y.-based Associated Healthcare implemented an automated system for oxygen tank refills recently. The system allows its patients to phone in orders 24 hours a day and its customer service representatives to be more than "monkey-like call takers."
The system works much like a pharmacy's automated system for prescription refills. First, patients call and enter their phone number, activating Associated's computer system. Then they enter keys for the type and number of tanks they want. Finally, they enter keys to indicate when they need the tanks.
"We figured most of our patients are on meds, and they're used to using these systems already," said Liz Woolrich, Associated's vice president of business development. "We didn't think the learning curve would be that big."
It hasn't been. Within months, about 30% of Associated's 6,000 oxygen patients were using the system. The company plans to increase that number through educational materials and with the help of its driver-technicians and customer service reps, who take every opportunity to show patients how to use the system.
The feedback from patients has been positive, Woolrich said. They like the convenience of calling in refills whenever they want. But if some patients prefer to speak to customer sales reps, they still can, she pointed out.
"We didn't want to make this a negative thing," Woolrich said.
For Associated, the system frees up its six customer service reps who take incoming calls--the company has another five reps who make outgoing calls--to work with referrals sources to discuss patient needs. Before the system was in place, Woolrich estimates, about 60% of the calls that the reps took were devoted to tank refills.
"Our reps aren't monkey-like call takers," she said. "Because of constant training, they're more like consultants."
Industry consultant Wallace Weeks predicts that automated systems for tank refills and other ways of harnessing technology will "become an industry-wide practice" for oxygen providers. Dwindling reimbursement makes it a necessity, he said.
"It wasn't very long ago that we were in the growth stage of the HME life cycle, and we really didn't have to do much to make a profit," Weeks said. "But today, we get $30 for refills per month. If we're delivering twice a month, and it costs us $30 to make a delivery, we lose $30 every month. If we weren't getting $200 a month for the concentrator, we'd be in a world of hurt."