Industry Voices—6 ways hospitals can show financial care for patients during COVID-19

Stethoscope and calculator on top of medical bill
While it may seem counterintuitive to continue patient communications during a time of great economic hardship, patients have continued to express the need for more information, not less. (Getty Images/everydayplus)

As hospitals, health systems and physicians navigate the clinical impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the revenue cycle team at each of these organizations must also be ready to guide the financial care of patients.

Fortunately, many experts in the revenue cycle space have successfully endured adversity over the years, including changes in the economy that have imposed significant hardship on both patients and providers. The organizations that have quickly responded to patient consumerism, emerging technology innovation and legislative changes have the proven ability to find ways to survive the current climate. In today’s COVID-19 crisis, increased sensitivity to patient needs is also essential.

Over the past month, we have seen elective and non-urgent procedures rescheduled or put on hold as clinical teams are mobilized to the front lines of clinical care.

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In addition to facing resource constraints, revenues for providers are dropping from lower emergency care volumes and fewer inpatient and outpatient visits; yet virtual visits are on the rise. Meanwhile, workers now face the challenge of unemployment, furloughs and lower wages. This shift is no different than the dramatic changes we all see globally across every industry and sector. Our entire world is in a state of adaptation and change.

While it may seem counterintuitive to continue patient communications during a time of great economic hardship, patients have continued to express the need for more information, not less. Some patients have even relayed that during this unprecedented time, healthcare organizations have an obligation to communicate more during economic hardship, as patients must understand payment options and assistance that is available.

In an era of patient consumerism, how should healthcare organizations approach communications? Does the current climate present an opportunity to convey a deep sense of care, making options obvious to patients? And, is this an opportunity or an obligation? Here are my recommendations for healthcare organizations to provide great financial care:

  1. Resist the urge to cease all communications as now, more than ever, is the time to communicate with patients about unpaid balances.
    • During turbulent times, some facilities cease communications, however, the silence creates more confusion for patients, especially when statements resume.
    • Right now, every patient is in planning mode, trying to comprehend the magnitude of change in the world and the financial implications.
    • If your facility is offering a 30- or 60-day grace period of payment deferral, communicate this to your patients.
    • If your facility is able to offer a payment plan for all balances over $100, tell your patients about this option right away.
    • If you can, modify your financial assistance policy for the short term and let your patients know of this benefit.
       
  2. Add special messaging to all statements and letters so patients know you are attentive to their needs.
    • Mail is more important than ever right now, and patients will hold on to paper documents in the days and weeks to come. This communication will become a valued resource as patients evaluate their bills and make critical decisions about household financial management.
    • Communicate that you care about your patients’ current situation, and emphasize payment plans, financial assistance and discounts are available.
       
  3. Offer the service of financial care consultants to ensure patients may have a live dialogue with someone to discuss their personal situation.
    • During a time when call wait times are steadily increasing, prioritize personal service by making professionals available to discuss balances, possible payment options and other means of financial assistance.
    • Use professional financial care consultants who are skilled in communicating with patients about financial hardship with empathy.
    • As a healthcare provider, patients will lean on you for clinical and financial care during this difficult time. Help meet the needs of your patients by providing a personal touch.
       
  4. Use an IVR system to communicate important and relevant healthcare messages.
    • Whether it is an announcement about available tests, vaccines, capacity or new patient payment options, automated messaging is a valuable tool for communicating with patients. Consider all of the ways you can broadcast relevant news.
    • Modify your existing IVR scripts to communicate new payment options or alternatives to payment, such as deferments. If you are not using IVR messaging, we understand from patients that this information, if personalized, is helpful.
       
  5. Promote technology to simplify the payment experience and deliver personal service.
    • While your patients may have more time at home, they continue to need easy ways to manage bills. Patient payment portals, online payment tools and email/text reminders all help simplify the payment process.
    • Ensure your patient portals are updated with new payment options and a number to reach a financial care consultant for personalized services.
       
  6. Implement a benevolent collection program as a replacement to your bad debt agency placement.
    • While we know the spread of the coronavirus will subside, the financial impact of the virus will last much longer. As restaurant, hospitality, service and other nonessential businesses have closed, people will be out of work for awhile and paying bills will remain a challenge.
    • This period of financial instability requires changes to the traditional bad debt referral at day 120. Rather than risking harm to a patient’s credit for extenuating circumstances, put into practice a benevolent program designed exclusively for accounts aged 120-180.

Consistent, compassionate communication with patients is what will help the most in this time of crisis. It is an opportunity and an obligation to strengthen the patient-provider relationship and convey a deep sense of care for the overall health and wellness of the patients you serve.

Beth Barksdale is CEO of Encore Exchange. 

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