COVID-19 Changed Everything In 2020. How Can Healthcare Providers Prepare For What 2021 Has In Store?

By Dr. Florian Otto, co-founder and CEO, Cedar.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first came into the country and hit hospitals like a tidal wave, we saw a rapid shift to digital care. More than half of consumers say their providers now offer virtual care. And use of digital tools like telemedicine increased by 50% during the first quarter of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. These stats are a sign that providers must work to truly understand the importance of digital-forward engagement strategies when it comes to building strong patient relationships.

Although recent vaccine approvals have brought some much-needed good news, the U.S is currently reckoning with the deadliest wave of the pandemic. This means that in addition to a continued public health crisis, patients and providers alike will still be faced with significant economic hardship as we enter 2021 – intensifying the need to improve the healthcare financial experience.

How can this be done? Here are three trends that I see coming to fruition as we continue fighting this pandemic in 2021:

2021: The Year of Smarter Heath-Tech Adoptions

The economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has affected both the patient and provider. With the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression this year, patients are feeling more cost-conscious about care decisions than ever. According to our recent consumer survey, 84% of respondents are worried about paying their healthcare costs in the next year.

What do you do when you’re on a budget? You shop around for the best price. Patients were already increasingly expecting healthcare to mirror their experiences with e-commerce and shopping before the pandemic. The financial strain caused by COVID-19 simply exacerbated this shift, lighting a fire under providers to adopt smart technologies that can consolidate patient information and “consumerize” the experience. Cohesive, consolidated and consumer-centric digital access points for all patient interactions have become the norm, and providers will need to adapt to meet these expectations.

As for providers themselves, pandemic-related shutdowns and stay-at-home orders caused financial strain for these organizations, with millions of elective procedures cancelled. This alone resulted in an estimated loss of $16.3 to $17.7 billion per month in reimbursement and $4 to $5.4 billion per month in net income for health systems.

In response to this financial strain, providers will increasingly look to invest strategically in tools that support their business goals and help them gain a competitive edge. Over half of consumers have delayed care due to fear of catching COVID-19, so getting patients back in the “door” – whether it is physically or virtually – will be crucial. Think about it from the point of view of ap patient – wouldn’t it make a difference to you if your doctor had the option of filling out paperwork and insurance information online, as opposed to waiting in a crowded waiting room?

Meeting Price Transparency’s Tipping Point

Even pre-pandemic, patient financial burden has skyrocketed over the span of a decade. According to CMS National Expenditure data, out-of-pocket payments accounted for $375B in 2018 and are projected to grow to $563B by 2027. COVID-19 has added another layer of pressure as many individuals find themselves unemployed and without health insurance.

As patients incur more out-of-pocket expenses than ever, they are demanding greater transparency about their healthcare costs. As I mentioned, consumers crave the ability to shop around. They are fed up with surprise medical bills and lackluster cost transparency from their providers, especially in the current economic climate. In the coming years, providers’ engagement strategies will play a significant role towards establishing trust and loyalty, and ultimately, achieving business results. Price transparency is one way to achieve these goals, in addition to insurance eligibility verification, robust payment option offerings, and a modernized patient financial experience. Striking a balance between achieving these goals will enable providers to turn policy compliance into an undeniable competitive edge in a changing landscape.

I believe mandates like the CMS price transparency regulations will present unique opportunities for providers to gain a competitive advantage, letting patients focus on care visits, not the paperwork and price tag. The choices providers make about how to engage patients on price transparency will make or break patient acquisition and loyalty, and ultimately business results in the coming years. The path to comply to this policy, however, is no small task. Those who embrace solutions designed to provide empathy and empowerment to consumers will emerge on top.

Embracing More Compassionate Billing

Beyond making healthcare costs more transparent, providers must also consider the emotional impact that economic hardship has had on patients. Although the new COVID-19 relief package will provide some much-needed (and long-awaited) aid, the gap since the first relief package in spring has caused much financial uncertainty and hardship; while their willingness to pay remains high, their ability to do so has gone down, forcing them to make tough calls on which bills to pay each month.

Consequently, they’re more stressed than ever and need an empathic, human and flexible response from providers when engaging with billing. This is an opportunity for providers to embrace compassionate billing practices that create loyalty, serving as a boon for both patients and providers. Compassionate billing is also accurate billing. It builds trust between patients and providers. By making medical billing more digestible for the patient and moving those conversations to the forefront of care, we will see providers contributing to a more positive financial experience throughout the care journey.

Looking Ahead

COVID-19 has strained the healthcare system in ways we never could have imagined. It has sent shockwaves across the entire care ecosystem. As we continue to navigate through the fallout and prepare for continuous outbreaks – even with a vaccine – we will truly see opportunity meet reality when it comes to reimagining the patient financial experience. Changes providers will make in the next year to improve that experience will be telling for their sustainability far beyond the confines of the ongoing health crisis.

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