SMS, IVR, and the role of tech in engagement

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Posted 12:18 Tuesday 14 February 2017
Andreas Norgren

Andreas Norgren

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SMS survey

We had some exciting news in the MES office last week: we’ve just launched our new, improved and fully automated service for sending and collecting Friends and FamilyTest (FFT) surveys via text (SMS) and telephone using interactive voice response (IVR).

Don’t let the host of acronyms above scare you off! This really is some exciting news as it means we are able to offer our clients further ways of collecting patient feedback. “What’s wrong with the existing methods of online response, or even paper?”, I hear you ask. The answer is ‘nothing’ as those more mainstream methods have proved to be effective ever since the launch of FFT in 2013 (and of course way before that). But over our ten-and-a-bit year existence, we’ve come to realise something at MES: the first step to good, meaningful engagement is to give people the opportunity to engage with you. In practice that means making your engagement activities accessible via a variety of methods and routes. The trap that we often see people fall into as they embark on their mission to ‘engage’ with their stakeholders (whoever they may be) is they think to themselves “What method would I respond to most”. We can see why people think like this. They are, after all, looking for the most direct route to success. The truth, however, is that different people communicate, respond and engage in different ways and a successful engagement project (or objective) needs to take these into account. The best engagement exercises consist of a range of creative outreach methods that give the opportunity to engage to as many people as possible. 

Tech, and new technological approaches, have a big part to play in this. Technology not only provides us with inventive ways of collecting data but it also provides clever solutions to how this data can be analysed and put to good use (more of that later). Now on the face of it using your mobile or home phone to text or call-in your responses doesn’t seem very advanced. In fact it feels distinctly (end of) last century. But that is really the point here. Our use of the internet is now so common place, and our daily volume of online interactions is now so high, that all of us are in danger of falling into that trap of assuming internet communication is preferred by and accessible to all. This is not the case. For some people, the use of a text message or a phone call will be the most direct route to getting them to respond/engage. The question then becomes how do you give people the option of these methods while a) making it easy for them to respond and b) making it easy for you to get that response? Thankfully, automated SMS and IVR can really help.

So how do our new services work? Well, for SMS the patient will receive a text message within 48 hours of seeing a health service provider, inviting them to take part, complete with instructions. The patient can then choose to respond to a satisfaction question by texting a number from 1 to 6 or ‘STOP’ if they want to opt-out. If they do choose to give a response, a second text message is sent to them asking them to tell the story of their experience in their own words. Importantly for the patient, the service is free, easy and quick to use. For IVR, the patient’s phone will ring and, upon answering, an automated message will give them the option of completing the FFT survey. To this invitation, the patient can either answer using their keypad, they can decline or they can request a call back within the next 24 hours. If they proceed to give a response, they are also invited to tell their story by simply speaking down the phone. Again the service is free and quick to navigate for the patient. Once the response are in, the free text analysis is promptly transcribed and (together with the quantitative data) added to the client’s patient experience system to join the other responses from other data collection methods. The services are naturally also in line with all of NHS England’s FFT guidelines. If you would like more information on these services, give us a call (020 8829 2330).

A caveat to all of the above though: as mentioned, giving people the opportunity to engage is only the first step to good, meaningful engagement. The second step is, once you’ve collected their data, to put it to good use. That’s a topic we’ve been talking about for a couple of years now. In June 2015 we published a paper titled ‘Making Sense and Making Use of Patient Experience Data’.  We wrote it because we found that while patient experience data was becoming increasingly valued among NHS organisations (both within and without the FFT program), there was significant variation between organisations as to how effectively they used their data to produce positive outcomes. It’s also the reason why our own patient experience products have built-in features to help health providers make better sense of the volume of feedback they receive: such as our automated free-text analysis tool we’ve developed with our partners at PanSensic.

We’ll be talking about getting the best results from your data at our upcoming ‘Challenge2020’ conference (together with PanSensic), so we’ll leave that for another day. The message I want to leave you with in this blog is that a creative blend of methods can ensure your engagement activities are a success. Sprinkle some tech among those methods and the result can be meaningful and effective.

On Tuesday 16 May, MES will host ‘Challenge 2020: Embedding Engagement in Health’. More information on this conference including programme, speakers and details on how to get tickets can be found at

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