On June 6th the FCC voted in a new Declaratory Ruling that provides protection from unwanted calls by empowering providers to block these “robocalls” by default, requiring individuals to opt-out of call blocking once it is implemented. In essence, the “Call Blocking by Default” ruling gives unprecedented power to major carriers like Verizon, AT&T and the like. These providers will soon have discretion to determine which calls will reach the consumer based on “reasonable analytics”—and be able to decide which ones will be blocked. Also, the FCC won’t require providers to adhere to a standardized approach to implement call blocking.

Since the FCC committee vote was announced, both industry experts and mainstream consumer advocates have flooded the media with opinions as to the validity—or even legality—of this ruling and the responses are quite polarized. The subject cannot, however, be painted purely with a black and white palette. While it’s important to understand how this Ruling will help combat the problem, it’s also crucial to recognize that there are specific instances, particularly for healthcare consumers, where automated calls and interactive voice response perform an important, even lifesaving, role.

I think there’s an important distinction to be made on this question. Clarifying within the function of automated calling and IVR itself may help to design a path that will protect consumers from annoying robocalls, while preserving functions where the medium is still highly effective.

It may be helpful to look toward the past for some guidance in making these distinctions. In fact, this newer Ruling is not unfamiliar to people like me who have spent their entire career in the finance and healthcare industries. It’s not the first time that we’ve wrestled with attempting to create guidelines that restricted illegal or unwanted messaging while preserving the messaging channel itself. In 2003, the FCC enacted CAN-SPAM, a program that was set up to protect consumers from unsolicited emails. Just as we were able to create compliance laws that seem to work then, I believe we can do so in this case if we move forward carefully.

The intention of the Declaratory Ruling is a good thing. It’s a huge step forward in eliminating illegal robocalls. It’s also helping to eliminate a lot of the unnecessary and annoying (if not harassing) calls that may not by definition be illegal, but are certainly borderline. Whether it’s email, voice, text or any other medium, there needs to be a certain amount of “policing” that occurs to remove the bad guys. There’s no question in my mind that the situation with illegal robocalling is out of control. Just as email service providers help filter out unwanted messages by following CAN-SPAM guidelines, so too can providers become allies in the same battle.

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There are also significant business benefits to reducing not only illegal calls, but reliance on messaging via IVR and other voice mechanisms that could be served better with an integrated approach. Many healthcare organizations still rely much too heavily on voice, particularly in a world where new generations of healthcare consumers engage more frequently in a different way.

At Icario, we’ve even found that within many of our outreach campaigns (many of which are directed toward wellness screenings and other preventive programs) even Baby Boomers respond more enthusiastically to text rather than voice. As an industry, this may be the kick in the pants we’ve needed to move us toward a more modern outreach strategy that is personalized toward the messaging preferences of each individual healthcare consumer. The new FCC ruling may help apply the pressure to move us away from the tendency to rely heavily on the one big gun in our arsenal that has traditionally been IVR, and toward more effective integrated outreach approaches.

Having said that, however, IVR and other forms of automated calling are still important tools for many reasons. As Commissioner O’Reilly so clearly pointed out in his statement on the Ruling, there are a lot of legitimate organizations that use robocalling methods for important jobs. This can include anything from bank fraud alerts, to school closures, or even public safety alerts. Within healthcare, consumers may be alerted to important prescription refill notices, or for doctor appointments or even messages from their doctor in a healthcare portal.

Many, many healthcare consumers still opt for voice messaging from their providers and their health plans. Phone carriers must understand that the new ruling carries with it not only responsibility to make the right choices, but also an element of risk as well. For example, what might happen if someone with a memory issue missed a much-needed prescription refill because the wrong call was blocked? These instances could happen more often without careful scrutiny and strategy around the method in which the ruling is implemented.

Although it’s not the only mechanism for messaging we use at Icario, many of our client members receive valuable reminders about annual healthcare screenings like mammograms or colonoscopies via voice. And the bottom line is those messages get people into their doctor or practitioner and in many cases they lead healthier lives because of it.

Once the FCC officially releases the ruling, it’s widely expected that phone providers will begin blocking unwanted calls based on reasonable analytics by default as opposed to allowing end users to opt-in to call blocking technology current in use today. Such “reasonable analytics” can be based on a broad combination of factors, including callers with a large number of complaints, large bursts of calls within a short time period, calls with low average call duration, invalid numbers placing large numbers of calls, sequential dialing patterns, and other indicia of illegal calling.

Carriers can also offer opt-in tools that allow calls to be blocked unless they appear in a customer’s contact list. Additional rulemaking will take place in July that may require adoption of SHAKEN/STIR by carrier, a system of authenticating the identity of a caller using certificates or tokens, reducing the likelihood of calls getting through that use caller ID spoofing or other calls being made illegally.

It’s only by understanding both the negative and the positive use of these outreach techniques that we can arrive at the best implementation of the new call blocking ruling.

As the FCC progresses with its plan, and phone providers begin to work to implement its guidelines, it’s imperative that we educate the public—in particular the media—on both the positive and the negative aspects of this ruling. Getting healthcare consumers to take better health action, particularly preventative measures, is a tough task. We need to understand the risks involved when the barriers to reach people in a positive way are increased. We need to make sure that we’re penalizing the criminals using the medium, not the medium itself.