A woman answers the phone.

Playing Telephone

Properly Addressing Voicemails

Keeping phone messages and voicemails organized for good follow-up is vital - the manner in which you respond is essential to patient safety.


Consider this scenario:

  1. Three medical offices were combining into one.
  2. Each had different protocols for various office procedures, including receiving telephone calls.
  3. Two offices used an answering machine “nurse line” where callers could leave a message and staff would get back to the caller or refer the call to the appropriate provider.
  4. The third office took all calls as they came in and handled them as necessary.
  5. The new, combined office decided to let a machine answer patient calls.

The first week after combining the offices, the staff quickly realized that the calls retrieved from the answering machine were not retrieved in the order received, but in a “last in, first out” play order. This meant that when the messages were checked, the calls that came in first were the last to be taken from the machine and receive a response. And if staff got busy and couldn’t get to all the messages, some messages might not get heard until the opportunity was presented. In one case, the call was “received” by the intended party the next day. 

In addition, when messages were taken off the machine, in spite of having electronic medical records (EMR), the messages were written on sticky notes and given to the provider.

What Can We Learn?

In this time of combining offices, we need to recognize that differences in handling situations are going to arise. In many, but not all instances, the differences may be just that: Different paths to the same outcome. However, sometimes, real issues will be highlighted and must be addressed sooner rather than later.

In this real-life scenario, it is important to address telephone procedures right away to enhance patient safety. 

  • Make sure phone calls are addressed in the order received.
  • Phone calls are documented either in the EMR or on a phone report with the date, time, caller’s name, relationship to patient, reason for the call, time retrieved, and call-back number. The person who took the message should also note their identity.
  • No sticky notes!

Additional Resources

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