As patients see increases in healthcare costs, it’s up to a practice’s staff members to change payment behavior and keep collections coming.
Consumer behavior has drastically changed over the last few decades in every industry. Until the 1990s, travelers called hotels directly to make room reservations. Today, with websites and smart phone apps, it’s hard to imagine booking a room without first researching costs and checking online reviews. Similarly, we used to pump gas, walk into the store and pay the clerk. Fast-forward to today, most of us will only buy gas at stations where we can pay at the pump.
In both cases, consumers didn’t anticipate their payment attitudes would change. They didn’t realize they would one day compare every hotel within a ten-mile radius, and they didn’t know they would feel inconvenienced by having to walk into a store to pay for gas. More often than not, today’s patients are similarly unprepared for the financial changes happening in healthcare.
For decades, patients had one type of payment experience: They paid a copay and rarely owed anything else for the visit. They might feel blindsided by a new financial reality -the high-deductible or consumer-driven health plan, where they must shoulder an increasingly large percentage of their healthcare costs.
As providers adapt by establishing more proactive collections processes, front-office staff often find themselves in a challenging position. They’re asking patients to make payment arrangements at the time of service, which represents a significant behavior change. In addition, front-office staff frequently fields specific questions from patients who can be genuinely confused about why they have to pay now, when they never did in the past. As provider teams work to overcome these payment challenges, three steps can help them promote new patient behavior and increase collections:
• Revise the patient financial policy, and put it front and center. In past years, patients may not have paid attention to their providers’ financial policies. Now, however, patients are more attuned to all things related to collections. Your financial policy can be a critical tool for setting expectations related to due dates, acceptable payment forms, and consequences such as late fees. It can also establish consistency, ensuring all physicians and staff follow the same rules. Once you’ve updated the financial policy, incorporate its review into pre-service and time-of-service processes. Ask staff to let patients know you’ve updated the policy during appointment reminder calls and feature it prominently on your patient portal. When patients complete paperwork at time of service, include the updated policy for their review and signature.
• Use technology to streamline and automate. Because today’s collections strategy requires substantial behavior change from patients, the staff asking for this change needs a great deal of support. Front-office staff is frequently tasked with the entire time-of-service collections process, from generating the estimate to reviewing the charges and collecting payment. In addition to these activities, the same team frequently fields an array of patient questions. By arming your team with technology to streamline any or all of the patient payment process, from generating estimates to setting up payment plans, you can improve productivity, instill greater confidence, and ultimately increase collections. When staff is manually generating estimates and getting up from their computer to use a terminal to swipe credit cards, their pace can become frenetic and they may come across as less credible to patients. Automating key parts of this process puts the focus where it needs to be -asking for payment -and allows staff to work smarter rather than harder.
• Steal scenes from an acting workshop. Even if you’ve implemented the right processes and technology, your team may struggle when put on the spot with questions. Patients may ask how they can be sure their credit card information will be secure or they might want assurance regarding the accuracy of an estimate. Schedule training specifically for role-playing exercises and have staff take turns acting as patients. By responding to typical questions, team members can gain confidence and get comfortable providing various explanations. In addition to role-playing exercises, scripts are another acting class staple that can help staff. Your team will appreciate having talking points and responses to frequently asked questions ready to go, and your organization will benefit from the confidence and consistency across team members.
Changing payment behavior isn’t easy, particularly when patients may not welcome the change. In many cases though, providers can win patients over by providing options or features that benefit them. Care estimates, for instance, can give patients the advance notice they need for better financial planning. Scheduled payment plans offer convenience while giving patients control over how much they pay and when. As patients adapt to new payment expectations, they will appreciate these options. Your practice will appreciate it too, once you see the return of these efforts in the form of more positive financial discussions with patients and ultimately, increased patient collections.
Jeff Wood is the Vice President of Product Management at Navicure