By Joe McMurray, senior vice president of patient experience, Zotec Partners.
A July 2022 report confirmed what most providers have seen coming during this time of rampant inflation: Unexpected healthcare costs can be crippling for the majority of Americans. Many factors have influenced this fact, including rising high-deductible plans, ongoing pandemic stress, and the general truth that patients are often sick, scared, or confused — or a mix of all three. This strain poses many challenges for healthcare providers and their revenue cycle teams, highlighting the importance of patient-centric financial experiences.
Calculating cost estimates on unexpected medical encounters is a very challenging process, and if done so inaccurately, it can push patients to switch medical providers. According to PYMNTS, 46% of unwell patients have canceled an appointment because of high cost estimates, and two-fifths of patients who received inaccurate cost estimates spent more on healthcare than they could afford. Healthcare providers and organizations have seen drastic reductions in payment as a result.
Understanding Why Patients Don’t Pay
According to research by Debt.com, 45% of Americans have outstanding medical debt. Some reasons why patients can’t pay their debts includes financial hardship (which can be from job loss), murky healthcare billing systems, unexpected billings (especially during the holidays), and ambiguities with insurance. Inflation isn’t helping the situation, with almost 60% of people forgoing healthcare due to higher living expenses across the board.
Unpaid medical bills and their resulting medical debt are typically the outcomes of a combination of factors. First and foremost are unexpected healthcare costs, which is precisely what it sounds like: unplanned and unbudgeted medical expenses. The continued hike in high deductible plans and increased out-of-pocket expenses has also hit healthcare consumers’ wallets.
Additionally, uncertainty around billing is an issue for patients who need clarification on their responsibilities, billing due dates, or even which providers they saw during their encounters. Finally, technology can be a barrier to patient payments. When patients can’t access, understand, or act quickly on their bills, they are less likely to make a payment or pay in full.
Improving the Financial Experience for Patients
Health systems and clinicians shape patient care experiences, which can unfortunately lead to medical debt and devastating consequences in certain circumstances. So, what can healthcare providers do to alleviate these financial pressures for patients and set them up for success beyond diagnosis and treatment?
The first and most obvious response is to get the bill covered by the carrier prior to sending it to the patient. With advanced technology partners, this is a goal that should and can be explored. However, if there is still a patient portion, the following four steps will enhance the experience for all:
• Patient Education and Awareness
Healthcare organizations can help individuals make educated decisions about how to plan and pay for their care. Enhancing medical billing transparency means ensuring patients are aware of out-of-pocket expenses, including cost-of-care discussions in provider-patient interactions.
With the federal No Surprises Act in effect, patients now have increased transparency into what scheduled medical encounters cost. However, these estimates can only be accurate if no unplanned medical care or treatment is needed during service. By communicating up front with patients about additional costs, they will be more empowered when making healthcare decisions.
Once a patient receives a bill, it should be accurate, easy to understand, and convenient for them to take action.
• Payment Choices and Flexibility
Healthcare organizations can help patients with medical expenses by expanding, simplifying, and innovating payment options and plans. Offering more ways to pay based on patients’ preferences is essential, as is giving patients more time and flexibility. No two patients are alike, and based on their propensity to pay, providers can offer patients customized communications that offer payments through paper, phone, text, email, or portal access.
Offering payment plans is a proven way to increase collection rates. Patients who are offered additional time, even if it’s just a few weeks more, are more likely to make payments or pay their bills in full, reducing likelihood of medical debt. By adding a few more weeks to the billing cycle, providers can offer patients a more dignified and effective way to pay for services at a time most suitable for their financial situations.
• Compassionate Care Continuum
Healthcare expenses are a source of anxiety for many patients. Intimidating collection steps won’t do them any good, but a more compassionate billing approach could help increase patient payments.
Team members should utilize compassionate language as they guide patients through their journeys. When patients are confused, they should be met with a responsive contact center that leads with empathy and understanding. After all, calm patients feel more confident in their billing and are increasingly more vested in paying for the services rendered.
• Simple and Streamlined Technology
Providers should implement portals that make it easy for patients to pay bills, schedule appointments, review payment plans, and share feedback. Empowering patients with a self-service option enables greater transparency and customized experiences — all leading to higher payment capture.
By developing an extensive and dynamic patient journey by persona, organizations can customize communications by patient demographics and propensity-to-pay. This allows them to use the most innovative, intelligent means to request and receive payment. If providers don’t have a portal that meets these criteria, there are technology-enabled revenue cycle services partners that can further enhance the patient experience.
No two patients have the same pain points when it comes to medical expenses. And considering the economic landscape evolves daily, healthcare needs to be ready to adjust accordingly. Providers need to find flexible and intuitive ways to connect with patients and offer a variety of payment options to engage compassionately throughout the entire healthcare journey.