Industry Voices—Key to rural hospital survival: Sustainable solutions for patient financial engagement

More than 600 rural hospitals face immediate risk for closure, according to a Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform report (PDF). It’s a scenario that underscores the importance not just of government efforts to protect rural hospitals from closure but also new approaches to patient financial engagement.

This summer, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services proposed a rule that would pay rural hospitals 5% more for covered outpatient services if they are designated as Rural Emergency Hospitals. The conditions of participation and payment policies—which include the ability to eliminate inpatient care and focus on emergency and outpatient services—are expected to be finalized this fall.

But while the proposed rule could provide a much-needed financial boost to rural hospitals beginning Jan. 1, 2023, the rule in and of itself is not quite a lifeline for struggling hospitals. Given that 80% of rural hospital revenue comes from outpatient procedures, there is another component of payment rural hospitals must focus on to survive: self-pay collections.

Tightening up rural self-pay collections

Engaging patients in the financial aspects of care in ways that are proven to drive a response early in the encounter is vital to rural hospitals’ financial health. It also is essential to protecting patient relationships, given that the payment piece is the last step in the patient encounter.

Technology-driven solutions hold strong potential to engage rural consumers in their financial responsibility for care in affordable ways. They also take pressure off revenue cycle staff at a time when revenue cycle departments are short-staffed. The key is investing in solutions that are proven to drive payment.

Here are three areas where technology-driven solutions can more effectively prompt patient financial engagement.

1.     Self-service tools that take the guesswork out of financial responsibility. When it comes to emergency department visits, the financial cost of care is a secondary thought for consumers who need access to medical expertise in the moment. For individuals who need outpatient surgery, access to financial information can mean the difference between a scheduled appointment and delayed care. These are just a couple of reasons hospital revenue cycle departments are leaning into robotic process automation not just to streamline financial clearance, but also to give rural patients a more private option for determining, “How much will I owe for this procedure after insurance?” Gartner expects half of hospitals will invest in RPA by the end of 2023.

2.     Omnichannel methods of communication. Nearly half of consumers desire contactless healthcare payment, and 44% will pay more quickly when notified digitally, one survey found. But preferences for digital financial communications, from secure text to email, vary by generation and by gender. Ask consumers how they would like to receive financial communications. Then, leverage data from these communications to determine the best time to send messages by population. Our experience indicates patients are most likely to engage with digital financial communications after 8 p.m. or on the weekends.

3.     Automated options for account resolution. The first questions that come to mind after a patient knows the balance due are, “What are my options? Is a payment plan available? Do I qualify for financial assistance?” By equipping rural consumers with the tools to explore payment options on their own and self-enroll in a payment plan or financing option, rural hospitals can give patients peace of mind while protecting their bottom line.

An efficient and compassionate approach

At a time when rural households are more vulnerable to inflation, digital-first communications and entryways to healthcare payment offer a more private approach to medical account resolution. They also speed access to information and boost payment. As rural hospitals explore ways to protect their survival, digital payment tools are a vital piece of this equation.

Randall Shafer is executive vice president and global head, hospital business for Firstsource.