CDC to consolidate hotlines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to make it easier for the public to call a single place for information about diseases.

The agency will soon release a request for proposals to merge the agency's three-dozen hotlines into one contact center. The consolidated center will bring consistency to the calls, cost savings to the agency and a single face to the public, officials said.

Much of CDC's organization and funding has grown up along disease or topic lines, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer. Their call centers have as well, with each separately managed either in house or by contractors, said James Seligman, CDC's chief information officer.

"Right now, true to our usual organization preferences, we have a highly distributed business model," he said.

With the new hotline, 1-800-CDC-INFO, callers can make one call and receive answers to questions on a variety of topics, Seligman said. Along with a Web site redesign that is in the works, the single hotline is another way the agency is increasing its public visibility.

The cost and expectations of the project have not been determined, Seligman said. However, officials expect the contact center will include centralized e-mail and mail intake. CDC officials will leave many details to potential service providers, but keep industry best practices in mind while evaluating proposals, Seligman said.

"We don't have any preconceived outcomes, but we will be looking for innovation on [customer relationship management] tools, knowledge management tools and workflow tools," he said.

Callers will receive more responsiveness and consistency in the service, Seligman said. A single center will allow for constant coverage and enhanced services, such as multilingual and hearing-impaired options, he added.

A centrally-managed contact center will also let CDC officials quickly increase the number of call takers in the case of an emergency or outbreak. "We don't have to scramble as hard to get enough people there," said Dottie Knight, project manager for the consolidated consumer services contract. "[The contractor] has to scale their resources to handle a fluctuation in volume."

CDC officials want 80 percent of calls answered by the first person to pick up the phone, Knight said. However, second and third levels of call takers will be available for more expertise.

"The knowledge base continues to build," she said. "The response goes into the knowledge base and perhaps [a call] won't have to be transferred next time."

The largest challenge will be teaching a new vendor's personnel about information available at the CDC, Seligman said. Call takers must be familiar with the information so they can ask the proper questions and enter the right key words to get answers. They also have to understand the need for sensitivity in many topics, such as HIV/AIDS or sexually transmitted diseases, Seligman said.

Knight said they hope to have the current call takers help train the new contractor, providing examples of calls and ways to deal with sensitive material.

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