It’s time to bring customer service to financial interactions with patients

February 13, 2017

When you think about customer service for your patients, you likely think about the traditional things: wait times, an efficient check-in process and friendly, helpful receptionists and medical assistants. Patient-friendly billing probably isn’t on your list, but it should be. Effective communication about a patient’s financial obligations can strengthen patient satisfaction, improve patient adherence and increase your odds of collecting patient balances in a timely fashion.

According to Kay Tyler, MBA, CEO of Family Allergy & Asthma in Louisville, KY, and ACAAI Practice Management Committee vice-chair, “Patient satisfaction should not be viewed just in terms of the clinical encounter, but also the billing encounter. Effectively communicating costs, benefits, and payment expectations can be just as important to the patient as the entire clinical visit.”

Here are four steps you can take to improve communications with patients regarding financial matters:

1. Provide cost transparency

  • Give patients an accurate estimate of their total out-of-pocket expense at registration. In a 2014 survey by TransUnion, 75% of respondents said advance estimates of out-of-pocket costs would improve their ability to pay for health care.
  • Help patients understand what their insurance policies cover – and what they don’t. In a 2016 survey by the Physicians Foundation, close to 50% of respondents said they rely on their physician to understand what their insurance does and doesn’t cover.
  • According to Kevin McGrath, MD, FACAAI, ACAAI Practice Management Committee vice-chair, “When we recommend allergy immunotherapy, we give the patient a 4-page explanation of how shots are done and include the billing codes and questions to ask in regard to deductibles, co-pays and limits. We give them the correct questions to ask their insurance carriers regarding coverage unless we have prior knowledge (i.e. Medicare or Medicaid). Then there are no surprises. We also have them sign a consent to mix and bill their first extracts when starting shots.”

2. Talk openly with patients about out-of-pocket costs for various treatment options, and decide together on a plan of care they can afford

  • According to the Physicians Foundation survey, 25% of U.S. adults have skipped a medical test, treatment or follow-up or avoided a visit with a doctor for a medical problem in the past 12 months because of the cost. Additionally, 18% have skipped doses of medicine and 27% have avoided filling a prescription due to cost.
  • Candid conversations about costs will lead to shared decision-making and a realistic plan of care your patient can afford.

3. Make billing statements clear and concise

  • Have you looked at one of your billing statements lately? If not, it’s time to pull one out and make sure it is easy to understand. If patients don’t understand it, they won’t pay it.
  • Compare your bill to the winner of the recent A Bill You Can Understand contest (see pages 5 and 6), sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services.

4. Provide a contact for patient billing questions

  • Your billing contact now needs good customer service skills in addition to billing expertise; they must be respectful and empathetic as well as knowledgeable.
  • Interactions with billing personnel are more and more important as patients take on an ever-increasing portion of their health care costs. These encounters now have a major impact on patient satisfaction.

While patient billing and discussions about financial obligations have not been a customer service focus for allergy practices, that is starting to change. The benefits are clear: satisfied, healthier patients and improved collections.