Could collecting from patients be the modern medical practice’s least favorite administrative task? Based on my experience, I’d say it’s certainly a candidate.
It’s a hard task to like, mainly because it’s a hard task to get right. Bungling it may mean that your practice never gets paid for some services it provides, but being too aggressive may inadvertently convey that your practice is more concerned about money than patient care.
Throw in high-deductible plans that have made patients responsible for more of the cost of their care, and it’s easy to see why patient receivables have become such a challenge to profitability for hospitals systems, small independent practices, and every type of healthcare organization in between.
There’s no instant, painless cure-all for patient collection problems, but there is good news. It may seem counterintuitive, but collecting well doesn’t have to be at odds with patient service. In fact, taking the right steps to collect better can actually help you forge better patient relationships.
Knowledge is power
Surprise medical bills cause ill will that can undermine physicians’ relationships with their patients. In many cases, though, the “surprise” is caused mainly by patients’ misunderstanding of health plan rules.
Educating patients about their insurance may not seem like your job. Insurance companies and employers should help patients understand the complicated terms of their insurance. But whether because patients ignore insurance information until they need treatment, insurance is very complicated, or insurance companies don’t try hard enough (or all of the above), the task of explaining insurance will frequently fall on your practice’s plate.
It’s tempting to wait and see if a patient misunderstands before jumping in to explain payment terms, but it’s better to be proactive—if you wait until a patient is confused by a bill, expensive damage may already be done. The patient who receives an unexpected bill may assume it’s wrong, refuse to pay, and even become angry. Your ability to collect what you’re owed will diminish—along with the patient’s trust in your practice. If you help your patients better understand their insurance, they’ll have an easier time navigating all of their healthcare transactions, and they’ll have you to thank for it.
Head off confusion with education—starting when the patient sets the appointment. Make sure your practice management system is able to provide your schedulers with accurate patient payment responsibility data, and your schedulers are trained to confidently access and explain this information.
Arm front-desk staff with training
The time of service is a critical time both for reinforcing payment terms and collecting. Starting the education process at the time of scheduling will make front desk collections much easier, because patients better understand their payment responsibility. But it will still be less effective than it should be if front desk employees feel unprepared for the task.
Develop a clear, consistent process for collecting from patients at the front desk. Make sure your employees have a straightforward, standard way of asking for payment (“i.e. How would you like to pay your copay today, Ms. Andrews?”). And make sure the way they ask for payment neither sounds apologetic nor implies that payment is optional.
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