One feature of pharmacies is the incessant ringing of the telephone. Although pharmacists pride themselves on handling phone calls personally, the rising number of phone interruptions takes time away from patient counseling, filling prescriptions, and the daily operation of a pharmacy. Is there a solution?

New Jersey-based TeleManager Technologies Inc and Florida-based Voice-Tech have developed Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems to help small chain, independent, and outpatient hospital pharmacies maximize productivity without always having a phone attached to their ear.

TeleManager offers pharmacies 2 IVR systems: the stand-alone In-Store IVR System and the On-Demand IVR Service. Paul Kobylevsky, vice president and chief operating officer, said that systems make life easier for the pharmacist and the patient, as well as increasing productivity. The In-Store IVR system improves the prescription-fulfillment process. The system integrates with pharmacy systems to maximize prescription output and accuracy, features a graphical interface that minimizes pharmacist training and usage time, and includes call-routing capabilities to enhance patient care. A fully integrated storewide phone system is optional.

The On-Demand IVR Service provides all the advantages of a traditional IVR without investment, installation, or maintenance agreements. The service allows pharmacy staff members to answer phones when they are available. Therefore, pharmacies pay only for what they use. When a patient or prescriber calls the pharmacy and the phone is not answered, the call is handled by the company's central IVR host and is seamlessly routed back to the pharmacy. The system can be integrated with a pharmacy's management system or used on a stand-alone basis.

Registered Pharmacist Howard Shulman of Keansburg Drugs reported that he "wouldn't be without" TeleManager's In-Store IVR system. The pharmacy, located in Keansburg, NJ, fills approximately 400 scripts a day. "I have a very busy pharmacy, and [IVR] sounded like the right thing to do to get us off the phone," he said about installing the system >4 years ago.

Shulman explained that the system provides many benefits for patients. Patients can refill a prescription any time of the day, and the refill request is immediately sent to the pharmacy's computer system. Using the system, patients can let the pharmacy know whether the prescription will be picked up or delivered, and they can leave messages for the pharmacy staff. Physicians can leave messages on the IVR, as well as faxing or electronically transmitting prescriptions.

Shulman also uses the system to automatically generate reminder calls about prescriptions due to be filled. In an effort to cut back on the number of prescriptions left at the pharmacy, the system will generate pickup reminder calls. Keansburg Drugs sends out reminders at 4, 8, and 12 days. The graphical user interface allows the pharmacy to sort prescriptions in different ways, as well as logging every call into the pharmacy. For example, if a patient calls the pharmacy 3 or 4 times and hangs up, Shulman will see the calls on the log report. This report provides an opportunity for Shulman to do a follow-up call to determine whether there are any problems or to answer any patient concerns.

Boston Medical Center's 2 outpatient pharmacy locations have found great success with TeleManager's In-Store IVR System. The volume of calls was tremendous at the 850 Harrison Avenue and the 88 East Newton Street sites, according to Registered Pharmacist John Bertolami, director of pharmacy for outpatients at the hospital. Between the 2 locations, the pharmacy would get >4000 calls a month handled by 3 operators. The IVR system replaced the operators and reduced the number of calls to questions from patients.

Bertolami said that the IVR allows physicians to record their prescriptions in the system 24 hours a day every day. In English and Spanish, patients can order refills at any time, and the scripts go directly into the computer system. He said that one of the system's many features is the ability to record messages for the public and for physicians. A current message, for example, informs physicians that telephone prescriptions are not accepted during physician and clinical hours. All prescriptions must be faxed or electronically transmitted.

"We're trying to get prescriptions faxed or electronically prescribed to cut down on possible errors. IVR is a great way to get a message across," commented Bertolami.

Tim Garofalo, president of Voice-Tech, said, "Our original purpose for our system was to use it as a tool to off-load phone traffic." Because >90% use IVR in chains, Voice-Tech serves the small chains and independents. He said, however, that many independents think that IVR is just a system that answers the phone. Voice-Tech tries to correct this misconception by educating pharmacists on the advantages of an IVR system.

The foundation of the company's solutions has been the Telephone Refills/IVR. The telephone-refill function allows callers to submit prescription- refill orders that post directly to the work queue of the pharmacy. The module can be configured as a refill hot line only, answer only after 3 or 4 rings, or answer all the pharmacy lines. "[Pharmacists] were dumbfounded when I told them it didn't have to answer all the calls," explained Garofalo.

The company recently launched a modular approach for its communication solutions. Now pharmacies can choose whichever product (or products) fits their needs. The solutions include the following:

  • Doctor Fax Authorization—the module works every time a patient enters a refill that requires authorization.
  • Rx-Pickup—helps the pharmacy control the prescriptions in the "will-call" bins. The module activates automated outbound reminder calls to patients to tell them that their prescription refill is ready.
  • Internet Refill Solution—allows a patient to request prescription refills via the pharmacy's Web site. The application confirms and notifies the patient whether or not refills are available and schedules pickup time. The request is then posted to the pharmacy system work queue.
  • Quick-Link—is a fast and convenient way for staff to enter a refill request. Instead of using a pharmacy terminal, the application's small touch screen can be used to securely submit a prescription refill directly to the pharmacy system.
  • Refill Assistant—is a self-service touch screen that can be placed on the counter or as a kiosk that gives patients the ability to place refill requests from any location that is connected to the pharmacy network.

Registered Pharmacist Marvin Lieber, owner of Tuxedo Pharmacy in Atlanta, Ga, said that he was one of the first independents in the state to use Voice-Tech's IVR system. In the 3 years his pharmacy has been using it, he boasted, "It's amazing. I never realized how many calls came into the 5-line pharmacy. It's cut down the phone calls to 20%. The answering system doesn't hang us up on the phone. When customers got used to it, they would call the refills in at night."

He also uses the system for prescription reminders if scripts are left 3 days or longer. Physicians are able to leave messages and prescription orders, and patients can specify when they would like to pick up their prescription.

"As an independent pharmacy, we pride ourselves on our service," Lieber pointed out. "We got over [the novelty of the new system] rather quickly. We accept it now, the patient accepts it. We don't feel it's any loss of service. [Patients] can leave a voice-mail message or speak directly to the pharmacy."

When Medicine Shoppe #337 implemented Voice-Tech's IVR, the goal was to prevent errors. "The phone was getting to be a problem, with being interrupted all day. I was afraid of making mistakes," said Carl Acquaviva, owner of the Palm Bay, Fla, pharmacy.

The pharmacy, which fills 300 to 350 scripts a day, also uses the system for reminder calls for prescriptions left for 2 days, for prescription refills using the Internet, and for physicians to call in prescriptions directly. Acquaviva's pharmacy is located in a largely senior population, and he said that seniors still like to talk with pharmacists. "I'm amazed, however, at how many actually use the system. Doctors' calls go right to the IVR, and they love it because they don't have to be put on hold."

"I feel better at work with it. I feel like I have more control over my day," Acquaviva concluded.