CDC Recognized for Call Center Success
Communications is an essential component to an emergency response strategy to provide guidance to people facing perceived or actual dangers. During an emergency, panic may lead people to call 9-1-1 emergency hotlines—possibly clogging up the lines for non-emergency calls and questions.
During the H1N1 campaign, the CDC and local health department call centers were often integral to the dissemination of accurate information and direction. Health officials also communicated through news media, pamphlets, and public service announcements, but call centers provided a direct link to concerned citizens.
As part of CDC’s own response to H1N1, officials established a call center that was able to respond to 93 percent of calls in 30 seconds or less. For her efforts in ramping up the call center quickly and effectively, Amy Burnett, director of CDC-INFO, was recognized this year with a Federal 100 Award from Federal Computer Week magazine.
In an e-mail interview with NACCHO, Burnett explained how the CDC-INFO call center became a strong component of an overall response strategy.
NACCHO: When was the CDC-INFO call center for H1N1 first opened?
Burnett: The CDC contact center (CDC-INFO) was created in 2005. Since then, it has operated 24/7, 365 days a year and has responded to more 2,635,151 phone, e-mail, and postal mail inquiries on a variety of CDC health and safety topics. CDC-INFO was activated for H1N1 as part of CDC’s overall response.
N: Would you consider a call center an integral part to any preparedness plan? Why or why not?
B: Yes, absolutely. The general public and healthcare professionals will always have questions during an event and will want to contact an organization through a variety of channels. Plus, contact center inquiries can give you rich insights into the information needs of your customers during an event.
N: The CDC was able to quickly train call center staff to meet the demand of high volume periods. How was this done quickly and efficiently?
B: Training is a critical part of CDC-INFO’s success as a contact center. CDC-INFO conducts new hire and refresher training for customer service representatives at multiple times during the year, so we already had a good training infrastructure and process in place. Because of this we were able to get multiple agents trained and on the floor quickly during H1N1.
N: What questions were most typically received through CDC’s H1N1 call center? What information was most in demand?
B: The types of H1N1 questions received changed as the event changed. For example, in April and May 2009, the most common questions centered around “what is H1N1,” disease transmission, and inquiries from citizens who had recently traveled to Mexico and Texas and were concerned about getting H1N1. By November 2009, the most common questions were about the H1N1 vaccine.
N: Who was using the service (e.g., health professionals, pharmacists, or the general public)?
B: All of the above used CDC-INFO. We are structured so that we can respond to general and complex inquiries from multiple audiences. For example, we have a team of agents with public health or medical backgrounds who respond to inquiries from healthcare professionals.
N: How can local health departments, who may be operating with limited resources, set up their own call centers? How can they ensure that callers aren’t being put on hold for too long?
B: CDC has some great resources for state and local health departments that want to improve their call centers’ response capacity. These are available on the CDC website at http://emergency.cdc.gov/healthcare/responders.asp and
N: How will CDC aim to improve the process for future call centers?
B: We always strive for continuous improvement in all that we do. Specific to H1N1, we are finalizing our after action recommendations that will inform how we improve our response to future public health emergencies and events. We also compare notes and share lessons learned with other federal contact centers so that we can learn from their experiences and expertise.
Learn More about Setting up a Call Center
For more information, the CDC has provided an online toolkit on how to set up emergency H1N1 call centers that are suited to the particular needs of a community. The CDC emphasizes the importance of clear consistent messaging as a component to an emergency incident command structure. Setting up a joint information center (JIC) to manage this information is also recommended.
If you are interested in learning more about setting up information hotlines for emergencies, join us at NACCHO Annual 2010 in Memphis, TN. Officials from Fort-Wayne County Department of Health, IN, will be presenting a poster on partnering with an established community call center team. The hotline helped to handle some of the call volume concerning H1N1, fielding more than 5,800 calls between October and December 2009.