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Meet the Patient Access Center Team at Penn Medicine Whose Work Opens Many Doors

A physician speaking with an older adult patient in her home

At Penn Medicine, one of the most important points of connection between people who need to take care of their health and those who can help connect them to that care is the Penn Medicine Access Center. Access services associates are responsible for making sure patients are scheduled to see the right provider at the right time. As Penn Medicine’s largest call center, the Access Center staff are often considered the “front door” and first point of contact for patients. For employees, positions in the Access Center are also a valuable way to start and grow a career that provides a supportive environment for patients.

There are a broad range of reasons why patients call the Access Center — some may be looking for a new doctor or to simply schedule a follow up visit, while others need guidance on how to take next steps in their care plan or have other questions. In some instances, people are calling in a vulnerable moment, seeking to find the next steps in care after a recent life-changing diagnosis. Whatever the circumstances, the access service associates on the other end of the line are ready to step in as their helpful and supportive guide. They schedule and register patients, send messages to the practices and patients to answer questions, and respond when problems arise.

To get a sense of the scope and size of the operation, there are about 450 employees working for the Access Center (the majority of who work remotely), which handles four million phone calls a year, schedules one million appointments, and supports 30 different practices across the health system, which stretches from Lancaster, PA through Philadelphia and into Central New Jersey.

Answering calls at a rate of 60 to 80 a day, the agents wear many hats and often provide emotional support and encouragement in addition to wayfinding assistance for those in need of care. Deanna Glover, patient services coordinator, recently took a patient’s call who had a complex heart condition which would take their life in just a few months without the right intervention. “This hurts me. I wanted to do all that I could,” recounted Glover. While their interaction was brief, Glover said she felt good about her efforts to help. “I did everything in my power, and I exhausted every measure to try to help this patient.”

Access Center agents go through a rigorous onboarding program and focused customer training to ensure they are prepared for this important role after they are hired, with one whole day dedicated to “escalation” — helping staff manage challenging or complex calls. They’re also trained on tools such as charting in the electronic health record (EHR), and decision trees used to document and triage incoming phone traffic.

While the Access Center has always been a solid entry point for employees looking to “get their foot in their door” at Penn Medicine in an entry-level role, over the past few years, a concentrated effort on creating more deliberate promotion pathways and career growth opportunities has been helpful in attracting and retaining top talent.

Brandi Harden started her healthcare career at Penn Medicine as an associate service agent two years ago. Having empathy, patience, and the will to learn, she says, are the attributes of successful agents. Getting the opportunity to have first-hand experience with patients has influenced Harden to grow professionally within the health system — she is now an Access Center supervisor in the ambulatory practices.

Spending the last eight years with the Access Center and now in the role of project manager, Dylan Zdanavage has watched the center nearly triple in size — including in number of employees, departments they handle, and call volume. “One thing I’ve loved about our growth is seeing the career development and progression of my employees — many of whom are in practice management and other leadership roles across the health system,” he said.

Growth and Improvement: Penn Medicine’s Broader Effort to Improve Access to Care

Penn Medicine Patient Access Center video preview, showing four photos of staff wearing headsets
The Penn Medicine Access Center: How the Access Center Staff Help Callers at the Health System’s Front Door

In addition to having a great team in the Access Center, there are many other important elements to ensure patients have smooth access to Penn Medicine’s services. These include increasing the availability of appointments, providing the right support, and making the experience seamless for patients regardless of how they get in touch, all to keep the “digital front door” wide open and working as it should. “Patient access is meeting patients where they are,” said Philynn Hepschmidt, VP of Patient Access at Penn Medicine. “This could be a phone call, the Penn Medicine website, Google search, or mobile technology like the MyChart by myPennMedicine patient portal.” Regardless of the entry point, the goal is to get patients access to timely and appropriate care.

Hepschmidt and her team, along with colleagues and providers across the health system, have been working to open capacity for additional appointments; streamline workflows and improve lines of communication with the Access Center and the practices; and automate and innovate digital touchpoints with patients, such as the patient portal and website. For example, new and existing patients will be able to schedule appointments directly from the Penn Medicine website this year.

Nick Harvey, an operations manager in the Access Center, is part of the team working to make access smoother and easier for patients. Harvey  started out as a patient services associate in Orthopaedics and most recently served as an access administrator for Musculoskeletal and Rheumatology before joining the central Access Center six months ago. Harvey meets with practice managers across the system and other colleagues on the Patient Access team to create a more seamless and satisfying experience for the agents, patients, practices, and providers. As a manager whose “door is always open” (literally and figuratively) he is also on hand to lend extra support to his team of agents and the patients on the other end of the line if difficulties arise during a call.

In just the short time Harvey has been with the Access Center, he can see that the investment in improving the center’s operations is paying off.  They’re not only answering calls in a timelier manner, but they’ve broadened their scope to focus on quality and process improvement plus added flexibility for the agents to grow and learn in their role.

Hepschmidt says that the Access Center is crucial in Penn Medicine’s ability to be innovative in increasing access to care and creating enduring connections with patients and their families. Her team’s ongoing efforts to streamline patient access include a push to better understand the true demand for services across different locations and specialties at Penn Medicine. The ultimate goal is to enable more patients to get the right care at the right time.

“Delivering exceptional care and ensuring our patients have access to care are two of our highest priorities,” said Deborah A. Driscoll, MD, senior vice president, Clinical Practices of the University of Pennsylvania. “The Access Center is an incredibly important part of our strategy — the care for our patients begins the moment our agents answer their call.”

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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