- As the healthcare industry continues to be marked by high patient financial responsibility and out-of-pocket costs, practice leaders strive to ensure the bill pay process yields high patient satisfaction.
After all, a positive experience with the billing department can influence whether or not a patient pays their bill, according to a recent survey from Connance.
While this is not to say patients withhold their payments as a punitive measure following a complex or negative billing department experience, it does show that providers should make the patient payment process simpler.
Ensuring patients understand their financial responsibility, are aware of potential charges before they receive their bills, and experience compassionate and empathic interactions will be essential to creating a patient-centered experience. Below, PatientEngagementHIT.com discuses those principles and how organizations can facilitate a more positive patient experience during patient collections.
Improve patient education, add simplified billing
A significant hurdle to patient collections is convoluted billing processes. Seventy percent of patients say complicated billing is a major source of frustration for them; that number could grow as more patients face high financial responsibility for their healthcare, according to a survey from InstaMed.
Despite increasing financial pressure on patients, the healthcare industry is doing little to support consumers. Patient education and outreach about medical costs is scant, the survey of 2,500 patients and 100,000 providers revealed. And as a result, patients are growing more frustrated with their healthcare systems.
A healthcare organization that makes payments easier is attractive to patients, the survey found. Sixty-five percent of patients would consider switching to a new provider if the payment experience would be easier.
Organizations should consider medical bills that break down patient costs in simpler language that is easier for patients to understand. Additionally, explanations of benefits from healthcare payers should be simplified so patients understand what is and is not covered by health insurance.
Easing the process by which patients understand their own financial responsibility will be essential as patients continue to be frustrated by surprise medical bills.
Surprise medical bills are hospital or clinic charges that a patient expected to be covered by their health payer or that patients did not believe would be so high. This can happen when there is limited price transparency or patients to not understand which providers, services, and facilities are in their insurance network.
Sixty-seven percent of patients are concerned about receiving a surprise medical bill, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Additionally, 58 percent of patients say their insurers are to blame for surprise medical bills, stating that payers must provider better explanation of benefits, according to a survey from NORC at the University of Chicago.
“Most Americans have been surprised by medical bills that they expected would be covered by their insurance,” Caroline Pearson, senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, said in a statement. “This suggests that consumers may have difficulty understanding their insurance benefits or knowing which providers are included in their plan’s network.”
Organizations and payers can tackle the issue of surprise medical bills by improving patient education. When patients have more information about in-network providers and their plan benefits, they may be less likely to be surprised by a medical bill.
Offer usable price transparency tools
Price transparency tools allow patients to know what they will be paying before they obtain a medical service. Just as a consumer knows how much they’ll pay for groceries or a new appliance, healthcare price transparency allows patients to make informed decisions about their care.
Patients agree that price transparency tools would make it easier for them to shop for care.
But a 2017 report published in the American Journal of Managed Care revealed that although patients liked the idea of an online price transparency tool, there were some barriers to meaningfully using these tools.
First, patients did not always know they had a price transparency tool available to them. Organizations should consider promoting these tools on their websites and on other practice marketing materials to ensure patients access them.
Additionally, price transparency tools do not actually lower the cost of care. Patients may not wish to consult a price transparency tool when they know they will be paying a large sum for their treatment.
Organizations should consider fixes that could highlight the utility of a price transparency tool for their patients. Although these resources will not lower the cost of care, they can help patients connect with lower-cost treatment facilities.
Medical professionals should look at price transparency tools that also include information about care quality. High cost does not always equate to high quality, experts agree. Patients who see lower-cost options with equal or better quality will be able to make better decisions about their care.
Price transparency tools should also include metrics that are important to patients and use language that makes sense to patients.
Offer payment plans, deliver compassionate care
And the end of the day, patients are looking for care encounters that are compassionate and show providers truly care about patients’ wellbeing. While an organization cannot continuously deliver uncompensated care, they can make it easier for cash-strapped patients to access the care they need at a reasonable cost.
Most organizations are using payment plans to do this. Payment plans allow patients to tackle a very big medical bill at smaller increments, according to Tabitha Hickerson, CPC, the billing department manager at Family Health Care Medical Group of Modesto.
“As primary care physicians, our number one focus is patient care,” said Hickerson, whose organization has implemented payment plans. “With patient out-of-pockets continuing to grow each year, we wanted our patients to be able to have the peace of mind to make treatment decisions based off of medical necessity and not their finances.”
Hickerson and her team assess a patients’ ability to pay medical bills and the services they are utilizing. From there, they present patients with some different payment plan options that could make medical bills easier to manage.
“We customize our plans to each individual patient based on a number of things such as their overall patient health, their total balance, and income constraints,” Hickerson said. Other important factors include balance history and if the patient is managing a chronic condition, she added.
This allows the practice to maintain its principles of empathetic care, even when handling money matters.
“For us, letting patients know that we’re willing to work with them on the balance, it provides a sense of compassion to their health and shows them that it’s not all about the money, as important as that is,” she noted.
Excelsior Springs Hospital likewise uses payment plans to ensure patients have access to care, even when medical costs are at an all-time high.
“No one should have to choose between paying for food and rent, and healthcare, but an estimated one-third of people delay care due to cost concerns, risking their health, and, potentially, their lives,” asserted Excelsior Springs’ CFO Cameron Meyer.
“We decided that we needed a proactive approach that could help patients manage their medical bills. Nowadays, there may be a wider variety of healthcare plans, but people are seeing that even with varied plans, deductibles can still be extremely high and hard to meet.”
Excelsior Springs Hospital uses a bill payment strategy that allows patients to tackle more bite-sized payments at a zero percent interest rate. Since adopting the payment plans in April 2017, ESH has seen nearly 500 patients enroll in and pay off their balances. This has resulted in net cash funding to the hospital of approximately $450,000, Meyer said.
With these bill payment strategies have also come customer service strategies, according to Meyer.
“It’s important to focus on patient financial customer service and we educate our staff on how to speak with patients about having a proactive approach to paying their medical bills,” he said.
“During implementation we identified the need to improve the quality and timing of our communication with patients,” Meyer continued. “We never want our patients to be surprised when they receive a medical bill. Our staff has been transitioning to an up-front communication model, focused on helping our patients understand their insurance coverage and estimated financial responsibility.”
Combining patient payment plans, better price transparency, and easy-to-understand billing can make all of the difference in the billing department. As healthcare policymakers and industry leaders continue to assess payment models that could cut healthcare costs, individual organizations should consider their own strategies to make payments easier for patients.
By putting patients at the center of the payment process, organizations can ensure patients have a positive experience and are able to access healthcare.