Physicians should think twice about promoting medical credit cards to their patients

Consumers use credit cards to pay for everything (including the kitchen sink), but the latest trend has people using medical credit cards to pay for healthcare services.

But financial experts are warning practices about the pitfalls of promoting so-called medical credit cards to their patients, according to an article from the Healthcare Financial Management Association.

With the rise of high-deductible health plans, some providers are helping patients sign up with credit card companies to help pay their medical bills. Unlike traditional credit cards, these cards are limited to medical procedures and purchases.

The cards are regularly used by dentists, cosmetic surgeons and even veterinarians to help patients and customers pay for services. But medical credit card companies are looking to expand to a broader range of providers, according to the article. Practices and other healthcare organizations might see the credit cards as a way to combat growing bad debt from patients who can’t pay for services out of pocket.

Providers are likely to receive more overtures from financial services companies to get them to promote medical credit cards. But experts caution that patients who are unaware of the fine print can end up owing large sums. The credit cards offer zero interest for a set period, but the interest is deferred, meaning consumers get hit with finance charges if they don’t pay off the debt in time to avoid interest on the total bill.

But while providers may like the fact that they will get paid right away if patients use a medical credit card, they should think beyond the bottom line and consider potential hardships patients could face by using the cards, Gina Calabrese, co-director of the Public Interest Center at St. John’s University School of Law, told HFMA.

An alternative way to increase revenue and avoid bad debt is to collect payments at the time of service. And just as doctors talk to patients about the pros and cons of treatment options, they must be prepared to discuss the costs of care, from tests to prescription medications, so patients aren't surprised when the bill comes due.