Sunday, August 5, 2012

The cost of losing the human touch.

People aren’t perfect. Nor are machines. And that’s true, whether they operate in the public or private sector, despite all the politically charged criticism of government employees.

Perhaps you heard about this week’s technical glitch with automated trading at Knight Capital Group Inc. It rocked pricing on 140 stocks, with millions of shares trading hands in minutes, grossly exaggerating the volume and further shaking investor confidence in Wall Street.

Here’s another true story to add some real world perspective to my position about our era of errors.

Last week, I thumbed through the mail to discover a bill for $443.10 from a hospital emergency room for medical services, pharmacy and laboratory. I had been to that facility in Detroit’s northwest suburbs only once, some 20 years ago. The U.S. Postal Service is much more efficient and reliable than that, so, I called the 800 number on the invoice to deny the health system’s charge for services un-rendered. An automated system responded. It offered me several prompts and then a recording announced Customer Service was now closed and was available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I Googled the hospital’s main phone line and after a few touch tone strokes on my keypad, reached a human being who informed me that Customer Service was indeed closed.

“Those aren’t very convenient hours,” I said. “I’d like to take care of this quickly, since I did not receive any service from your emergency room.”

“They’re an outside agency,” the hospital operator responded. “You can leave them a voice mail.”

She connected me to the recorder. It was Friday about 4:30 p.m.

Monday morning, I called again and after navigating several prompts reached a human, Nora. When I informed her the emergency room bill was invalid, because I wasn’t at the hospital on July 16, 2012 or any other recent date, she asked for my account number. Then, to verify I was the legal party associated with the account, Nora asked, “What’s your address?”

When I answered, she said, “That's not the address listed on the account.”

“Please give me the address listed,” I requested.

“I can’t do that,” she said, “since this obviously is not you.”

“But what if the police would like to pursue that address?” I asked.

“Then they can call and ask for it,” Nora said.”

Fair enough. No need for vigilante justice here.

“But maybe someone has stolen my identity and is using my name,” I suggested. “The bill says ‘uninsured’, and I definitely have health insurance.”

“You should file a police report,” Nora said. “But I will need you to send us a letter declaring you were not in our emergency room and you’re denying payment.”

“Why do I have to do that work?” I asked. “You sent me an erroneous bill out of the blue, and now I have to write a legal document and mail it to you. You’re just trying to push your administrative costs on me.”

“It’s the only way we can compare your signature with the one on the patient chart,” Nora explained.

“Silly, Nora,” I thought. If I were a deadbeat,  I could simply alter my signature or have someone else sign the letter for me? Not a very reliable validation method.  And truthfully, I was hesitant about giving my signature to an organization that had sent me a bogus bill.

“Don’t they check ID at the hospital when patients are admitted,” I asked.

“They do,” Nora responded.  “You should also look at your credit report, in case someone has stolen your identity,” she suggested.

Frustrated with her analysis, I requested her phone extension and told her I’d file the police report.

When I dialed the Dearborn Police Department, after a list of automated options, I selected one that allowed me to speak to a police officer. He listened to my story and then quickly offered to send a car to our home for me to file a report. It was 9:45 a.m. on Monday.

“I have an 11 a.m. phone conference,” I said.

“There’s a car in the area. It can be there in the next 10 or 15 minutes,” the officer responded.

“Great,” I said and gave him my address.

Within 15 minutes, two professional Dearborn Police officers arrived, Corporal Tapping and Officer Burns. I invited them in and quickly walked them through my story.

“You probably should do a credit report check,” Corporal Tapping said.

“You’re entitled to do that once a year without affecting your credit rating,” added Officer Burns.

I had provided them with a copy of the invoice as well as Nora’s name and extension.

“This is the first billing,” noted the corporal. “Rather than you writing them a letter, we’ll call them and find out what’s going on.”

Before leaving, Officer Burns wrote down my police report number, her name and her partner’s and tore the sheet from her pad. She took my phone numbers and promised to get back to me. It was about 10:20 a.m. I told them I had an 11 a.m. phone conference so they might get voice mail.

After walking the officers out onto the front porch and saying thank you, I immediately checked my credit report online. Fortunately, there was no sign of foul play.

By 10:40, Corporal Tapping was calling back. “We reached the hospital and it seems like someone with a very similar name as yours was indeed in the ER on July 16,” she explained.

Turns out only one letter separated our last names. We also had the same first names, but he was more than 25 years younger. Too bad the hospital didn't pause to match birth dates when issuing the bill.

“Well that explains it,” I said. Must have been a keystroking error, I surmised. The electronic billing system automatically pulled up my address.

I told the corporal my credit report check was clean.  She promised to call again to let me know about the need to write a follow-up letter to the hospital.

“You might get my voice mail,” I warned. “Feel free to leave me a message, and thanks very much.”

I was already feeling better and got ready for my phone conference.

10:59 a.m. Dearborn’s finest was on the phone again.

“I talked to the hospital. They said there’s no need to write them a letter,” said the corporal. “If you receive another bill, simply call and give them your police report number.”

“Thank you so much,” I said.

Then I dialed into my phone conference with peace of mind, and gratitude that I have such a responsive city government.

My identity hadn’t been stolen. There was no unpaid bill for hundreds of dollars, just a clerical error someone made when they relied on automation, the way a novice might trust Microsoft’s spell-check feature. The private healthcare corporation got free investigative services, complete with a house call, courtesy of the local government. And the hospital wasted at least an hour of my time.

We live in a technology-obsessed world. This weekend, I saw a self-serve key-cutting machine at the big box hardware store. There were also multiple self-serve checkouts, way more than those with clerks. Much of this is sold as convenience. In reality, it’s designed to replace people with machines. Machines that customers operate. We run the switchboard when we call. We book our own flights and hotels, schlep our own luggage, pump our own gas, and, if we don’t want to wait, check and bag our own groceries.

And it’s all getting cheaper, right? Especially healthcare.

I love technology when it’s used properly, as a tool. In “The Jetsons” cartoon, “Rosie” the robotic maid was always so friendly. But, in real life, machines are only as good as the people who make and control them. Thank goodness the Dearborn cops I called weren’t androids.

By the way, neither Nora, nor anyone else from the hospital called me back to apologize.

There’s no profit in that — in the short run.

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