How to talk with patients about billing

April 16, 2019

If you let patients know from the start what you expect from them, you’re far more likely to get the money you’re asking for.

You know how much you have invested in your career and how much money it takes to run a medical practice, but your patients may not.

If you let patients know from the beginning that you are running a business and expect to be paid, you’ll have far fewer collections problems in the long run. Fortunately, having this conversation is not as difficult as you may think.

Don’t be shy

“We’re often embarrassed about collecting money, but we shouldn’t be,” says Kenneth Hertz FACMPE, principle consultant at Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) Health Care Consulting Group. “You can explain in a friendly tone that you are a business and want to be around for a long time provide care to your patients. That means you have to collect payments.”

Once patients understand this, they are more likely to pay their bills on time. But you do have to be consistent with this message.

“Most patients understand their obligations and are willing to pay,” says Elizabeth Woodcock president of Woodcock and Associates, a physician practice consulting firm. “A few are going to resist.” For those few, you have to make it clear from the outset that you expect to be paid in a timely manner.

This means having a billing and collections policy and sticking to it - no exceptions. “Often, the doctor tells the billing staff to collect what patients owe, but then tells patients not to worry about payment. I’m always hearing from staff [who are] frustrated by doctors making exceptions to the policies,” Woodcock says, adding that if patients learn they don’t have to pay, they never will.

Of course, you can - and should - still make arrangements with people who can’t afford to pay. But you must have a detailed policy for financial hardship, and every employee in your practice needs to understand and abide by that policy.

Setting expectations requires more than posting a set of billing policies. If you expect patients to comply with your policies, you must stick to those policies, too.

Educate clinical staff

It would be nice to leave billing to the billing department and patient care to the clinical staff. But that’s not always possible.

Billing staff don’t know what’s going to happen before or during the visit. For example, a clinician may perform a procedure that requires an additional copay. “[Before] these things happen, someone from billing needs to come back and explain the extra charge to the patient,” says Karen Lake, healthcare consultant at the firm Pearce, Bevill, Leesburg, Moore.

Clinical staff need to be prepared proactively address these situations, too. The rise of patient consumerism means that patients are more aware of their care costs and are more likely to ask what they’ll be expected to pay for procedures, lab tests, and the like. Often, those questions come up in the exam room.

“Physician assistants and nurses deal with this all the time, so it’s a good idea if the billing department does in-service training so that the clinical staff have a better idea of billing and insurance issues,” Lake says. “They don’t need to know all the details, but they do need to know when to call in the billing department for clarification.”

Give people a chance

The majority of patients take their financial obligations seriously. They value your services and expertise. They just need to understand what they are responsible for paying. It’s your job to explain that to them.

“The conversation doesn’t have to be all ‘Thou shall,’ ‘Thou shall not,’ and ‘We reserve the right,’” Hertz says. “Be up front, human, and matter-of-fact. It’s just a matter of person-to-person communication.”