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Employees at several Clalit medical centers in the north interrupted patients before they finished describing their problems in close to a quarter of the phone calls the centers received, the country's largest health maintenance organization reported this month at the annual conference of the Israeli Society for Quality in Health Care.

Clalit also found that patients were cut off in 6 percent of the phone calls that were transferred to a different number.

Of the 400 telephone calls that were part of the study, 53 percent were described as "friendly" calls in which the employee solved the patient's problem and 43 percent as "formal."

The catch is that the callers were only posing as patients. What they were really doing was testing the customer service skills of Clalit employees at the Lin Medical Center in Haifa and clinics in the Haifa and Western Galilee areas, as part of the initial stage of a Clalit project aimed at improving the HMO's overall customer service.

Racheli Friedman, the administrative director of Clalit's Carmel administration, which includes the clinics that took part in the testing, said the HMO might also start recording phone conversations at clinics.

"While there is a problem with service, we are in the midst of an employee training program," she said. "As for the phenomenon of phone calls that were cut off, we are trying to improve our telecommunications infrastructure and we are carrying out detailed checks to find employees with an unusually high number of cases in which the call is cut off. We do not record the conversations, but I am not ruling out the possibility of introducing this capability if it will help improve service."

Clalit plans to expand the program by hiring an outside company to bring in employees posing as patients to evaluate service in all departments.

The Health Ministry is also getting on the bandwagon, and announced earlier this month the inauguration of a program aimed at improving the quality of service in hospitals and health clinics across the country.

The Lin Medical Center began its own evaluation program three years ago, by asking patients to rate the service they received.

"It is important for us to evaluate the service experience, and when an employee is in the same place as the client, he more readily understands the significance of providing efficient service," said Dana Gildin, Lin's administrative director. "In terms of service, it is important to be constantly on alert. Otherwise there are no results."