Sponsored by CarePayment

Addressing patients’ most pressing insurance and financial concerns will build the trust and loyalty needed to keep them coming back no matter how sophisticated their medical buying habits become.

In these early days of healthcare consumerism, patients are far from the empowered and discerning shoppers for medical services that they will eventually become. Whether young adults, middle-aged, or retired; whether men or women; and regardless of income, the most common reaction to their medical bills is shock:

  • “When I first learned what my bill would be, it was terrible. I just didn’t have large savings at the time,” says Joe, a senior project engineer who broke his collarbone while mountain biking.
  • “When the bills started coming in, we were completely overwhelmed about how we were going to afford to pay them,” says Jean, 43, whose daughter was being treated by a specialist for ADHD and faced a $2,000 deductible.
  • “I thought I had better insurance but obviously not,” says Janet, a certified medical assistant for a physician practice who owed $1,200 of a total $4,000 bill for an emergency department visit.
  • “At first, when I looked at it all, I said, ‘Oh no, how am I going to pay my medical bills?” says Keeva, 36, who was responsible for $2,000 after an emergency C-section and neonatal care for her son.
  • “I worked for a property and casualty insurance company for 36 years before I retired. I know a lot about P&C coverage, I know a lot about life insurance, but let me tell you—health insurance can be so frustrating because it’s so complicated. Knowing what’s covered and what isn’t and how they’re going to treat it. It’s almost like it changes hourly in this day and age,” says Larry, 63, who had a $2,000 patient-owed balance after developing shingles.

Certainly, the rush to high-deductible health plans, increasingly the only option from employers and the popular choice on public and private insurance exchanges due to lower premiums, is fueling this confusion. Just 14 percent of Americans understand the basics of healthcare coverage, according to the Journal of Health Economics. Similarly, only one in five people can accurately calculate their out-of-pocket costs for a routine visit to the doctor, according to the American Institute of Research’s Health Insurance Literacy Survey.

Patient Education = Hospital Opportunity

This confusion presents a powerful opportunity for hospitals to leverage their patient access and revenue cycle staff to forge stronger patient ties and defend their market share against formidable new healthcare entrants. Retailers that have moved aggressively into healthcare delivery are skillful marketers with high-profile advertising, loyalty programs, and price promotions. But they don’t have the expertise, infrastructure, or people to help patients navigate the complexities of insurance choices and healthcare payment decisions.

This is an area where hospitals can excel. They can counteract moves that threaten to reduce some healthcare to an impersonal transaction at a retail provider—get an annual physical, get a strep test—by emphasizing the same type of personal attention, relationships, and trust that are the hallmarks of their clinical care.

To help educate patients about health insurance, providers need to equip financial services staff with tools for balance estimation, propensity to pay, and charity screening, as well as training on best practices for financial communication. With these, they will be able to effectively engage patients in a discussion about their insurance, financial assistance, and financing options. Some hospitals and health systems already have initiated a range of patient financial services, including becoming certified Medicaid application sites and providing financial counselors as certified application counselors to help patients apply for health coverage on the federal insurance exchanges.

This approach means that traditional providers can offer newly minted healthcare consumers something they can’t get anywhere else: a knowledgeable helping hand, with customer service personalized to each patient. It is just this type of attention and assistance that can inspire devotion and referrals that money can’t buy. In fact, one word-of-mouth recommendation is up to 100 times more valuable than a paid ad, according to recent research by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

Patients who have benefited from provider-sponsored financial services, including patient financing programs, are already spreading the good word to friends and family.

  • “It makes me feel like my provider really cares about you as a person. It was just like they cared more.”
  • “It felt like they wanted to help me and not just stick me with a bill.”
  • “I’ve told my friends and family that [the financing program] is just the best thing out there.”

Addressing the most pressing insurance and financial concerns of today’s patients will build the trust and loyalty needed to keep them coming back no matter how sophisticated their medical buying habits become.

Huntley McNabb is vice president of marketing, CarePayment, Lake Oswego, Ore., and a member of HFMA’s Oregon Chapter.

Publication Date: Monday, October 05, 2015