Many businesses are incorporating social media into their marketing campaigns and into their product and service offerings. But new technology does not always disintermediate. In the case of social media, the "original" social media technology is being integrated in new and innovative ways. So what is it? The plain old telephone. Increasingly, employees and consumers are using social media on their mobile devices or smart phones. At the end of the day, however, a smart phone is still a phone.

Insurance carriers, health plans and other health care organizations have long provided telephone services for access to health care professionals like nurses or physicians assistants. Lately, though, there appears to be a change in methodology. A switch from inbound call processing to outbound calling - from reactive to proactive.

Here's a real-life example. My company is in its third year of medical coverage with a large national carrier. Over the course of that coverage I have been to my orthopedic surgeon on several occasions. About a month after my most recent appointment, I received a call from the insurance carrier. I assumed the call was related to my recent doctor's visit.

Of course my first reaction was that there must be a problem with my claim. Au contraire, the call was from a health care professional who wanted to understand my related medical history, review the treatment I received, and discuss alternative treatments. The call lasted about 40 minutes with a nurse that was friendly and professional. And helpful. Not only did I have alternatives to try, the whole process made me feel better.

Look for technology innovation in two areas for telephone use in benefits advocacy care centers. The first is use of "call me back" capability.

One of the problems with self-service portals is they are often too loosely linked to high touch services, like speaking directly with a live person. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Calling an 800 number and not being able to speak to an agent is irksome. Ever press the "0" button over and over again out of frustration? Many commercial online sites have realized that self-service is not the end-all and now make it easier to call someone.

But the best marriage yet is the use of call-me-back technology on self-service sites. I first encountered this feature on Amazon.com. That day I was having a problem with previously purchased e-books not loading into my Kindle. I clicked "Help" then "Contact Us" and there it was - an option to have them call me either immediately or in five minutes.

I put in my telephone number and clicked "call me now." Forty-five seconds later my phone rang. No waiting for the next available agent, plus the agent knew who I was and the problem I was having. Ten minutes later I had access to all my e-books.

The second area of innovation in customer care centers will be around the use of speech recognition. I'm not certain how this technology will manifest itself in benefits advocacy care centers, but the iPhone's Siri application has generated a lot of buzz about the technology. I can imagine a speech recognition-enabled avatar triaging a call and routing it to a specialist. Or each member having a personal avatar that knows and learns about the member's needs.

I am excited to see what the next few years of speech recognition applications will bring to the health care industry.

The telephone has evolved over the years. Ten years from now who knows what a smart phone will do. But I think people will always use telephones to speak with each other. The "original" social media technology will live on.

Lamb is vice president and group head of the EbixBenergy business unit at Ebix Health.

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