Article Date: 12/1/2008

Beat the Busy Signal
If I Had to Do It Over

Beat the Busy Signal

Don't underestimate the importance of a good office phone system.

By Beverly Jue-Smith, OD, MBA
San Ramon, Calif.

WHEN I OPENED MY practice cold nearly 20 years ago, I had to make hundreds of decisions ranging from the design of our business cards to the design of the office space. I had to think carefully about every purchase, including clinical equipment, dispensary furnishings and business equipment. I was familiar with the latest clinical tools, but deciding on office technology — and more specifically, the telephone system — was uncharted territory for me.

Phone Frenzy

In the beginning, our front office equipment consisted of a single computer and a four-line telephone system. If I could "do it over," I'd have taken more time to consider our phone system, which I now recognize as one of the most important and most used pieces of equipment in our office. We now use 16 phone lines!

When it's time to choose a phone system for your practice, follow these helpful tips to guide you through the process.

■ Develop a budget, but don't be too conservative. Your phone system will be an integral part of your practice. Plus, the initial outlay could save you hundreds of dollars down the road if you're able to upgrade — rather than replace — your existing system. Also, consider what your immediate needs are, but try to plan for future expansion.

Dr. Jue-Smith received her optometry degree from the University of Houston. She practices at San Ramon Family Optometry, P.C., in San Ramon, Calif., and puts her MBA in healthcare management to work as a practice development consultant. You can reach her at

■ Recognize that phone systems are one of our most overlooked marketing tools. Systems that play custom on-hold messages are great for relaying news about the practice, but remember that custom messages should be frequently updated.

■ Be sure to have enough lines so patients never get a busy signal. Remember to allow for separate lines for fax machines, Internet, credit card machines and private lines, if needed.

■ Set up telephone intercoms in each exam room and throughout the office to help the office run more smoothly. The doctor won't have to leave the exam room to search for a technician, and staff members won't be running from one department to another to relay messages. They're also helpful in emergency situations so everyone can be alerted at once.

■ Suggest having your phones placed strategically throughout the office to ensure that staff members can always answer in a timely manner.

■ Consider new systems that offer automatic answering and call-routing capabilities, so callers won't have to be transferred multiple times. But keep in mind that some people dislike computer-answering systems because they lose the "personal touch." You'll have to decide what's right for you and your staff.

■ Use voicemail. It's convenient for patients who need to leave messages for specific staff members or doctors. It eliminates lost paper messages and can free up front desk staff time.

■ Do some legwork. Visit practices about twice the size of your office and evaluate their phone systems. Ask phone system vendors to make recommendations and let you test-drive their phones.

■ Purchase a service or maintenance contract. Remember that whenever your phones are down, there's a potential for lost revenue, so a thorough maintenance agreement is important.

Moving Forward

As time marches on, you may realize some early practice decisions could have been better — hindsight is indeed 20/20. I wish I'd planned my phone system more carefully from the get-go. But if you follow my advice, your telecommunications structure will be sound, and that will help your practice hit the ground running. nOD

Optometric Management, Issue: December 2008