Beyond the Call

Integrating call center systems at pharma companies helps ensure FDA compliance and improves workflow across all divisions—not to mention, protects the public
May 01, 2005


Understanding Call Center Functions
Having an efficient, integrated call center can be a matter of life or death. Imagine a pharma company not knowing for several weeks that the active ingredient in a life-saving drug was left out of the final product? How would they learn of the error if the quality control at the manufacturing plant failed to identify the problem? Most likely, the next opportunity for identifying such a crisis is through the call center—the key interface between healthcare professionals, consumers, and the company. However, it's not enough to log complaints about a product's efficacy. Once documented, complaints need to be routed to the right department, evaluated, and consolidated. If a streamlined process isn't in place, weeks could pass without anyone ever taking any action—even as adverse event records pile up.

While such an example may seem extreme, it demonstrates the serious job facing all call centers, regardless of size and budget. But even putting safety issues aside, streamlining call center systems is still vital because it helps companies keep compliant with FDA requirements. After all, unreported errors that put the public in jeopardy can lead to enormous fines.

To avoid such mistakes, call center managers need to be aware of the available options for structuring their organizations. What follows is a discussion of the key components of call center operation and an introduction to the types of integrated solutions available to aid system efficiency. In addition, this article looks at advances and emerging medical communications technology.

The Basics HIPAA The aim of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is to streamline inefficiencies in health industries, reduce system abuse, allow for continuity of medical coverage when changing jobs, provide better access to health insurance, and ensure confidentiality of patient health information. In particular, patient privacy is a concern whenever it is gathered in a pharmaceutical call center. While there are valid uses of such information (adverse event reporting, for example), a very real opportunity for abuse also exists. Taking inquiry details and mining the information for marketing campaigns and targeted sales efforts is a prime example of how this information can be misused. A business system must be implemented in a manner that is mindful of HIPAA law.

INCOMING CALLS Initial call routing is as simple or complex as the business dictates. In its simplest form, calls into a toll-free number ring on someone's desk until they pick up. More productive systems employ interactive voice response (IVR) to allow the caller to self-route their call. Systems with automatic call distributor (ACD) can route calls based on a number of criteria, including the called number that may be associated with literature on a particular product or from a particular business unit.

More useful in medical communications is the ability to quickly gather the relevant inquiry information and then close the inquiry in real time by answering the question and assembling the response package for delivery. The gold standard for turning around a response is 24 hours, but typical industry turn-around times are two, three, even up to seven days and beyond.

TECHNICAL CHALLENGES Pharma call centers serve as a communications bridge between a company, the medical community, and the general public. They routinely receive up to thousands of inquiries each day—primarily by phone, but also by e-mail, fax, and postal mail. Whether the call center is comprised of a few individuals, or it is a tiered, multi-skilled organization with a large staff of MDs, RNs, and PharmDs, all pharmaceutical call centers face similar core issues and challenges.

In today's instantaneous business environment, medical communications departments struggle to quickly respond to product inquiries from healthcare professionals, patients, and field-based sales representatives while maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction and audit trail requirements. Fortunately, medical communications systems—comprised of customer relationship management (CRM), electronic content management systems (CMS), and XML authoring tools—have been developed and are specifically tailored to meet the pharma call center challenges of managing risk, while improving overall customer support.