How digital tools improve the patient financial experience and boost the bottom line | Tom Cox

Hospitals cannot afford outdated digital portals, poor communication with patients or a clunky billing process that puts the onus on the patient.

Digital tools and services have addressed many critical needs in healthcare, but digital advances have not helped everyone equally.

In fact, today's healthcare environment leaves many consumers behind, resulting in unacceptable and critical gaps in digital services, not the least of which are outdated payment, billing, and pricing models that make the patient financial experience a painful one for too many.

Outdated payment options exacerbate medical debt

At a hefty $140 billion price tag, medical debt in the United States is a growing crisis. There are many contributing factors, but it doesn’t help that such costs are often unclear upfront and confusing at best once the bill arrives, with a lack of seamless digital payment options throughout the journey.

The OPPS Price Transparency Final Rule is a strong attempt to standardize the patient experience, but there is much more to be done to make pricing easy to understand. According to a recent PYMNTS andExperian Health collaborative survey, Easing Digital Frictions in the Patient Journey, only a third of patients received cost estimates prior to their visits, and another 14% only received cost estimates after requesting them.

Meanwhile, 82% of patients living paycheck to paycheck with issues paying their bills consider it “very” or “extremely” important to know out-of-pocket costs in advance. The survey also found that 40% of patients who received surprise bills spent more than they can afford on healthcare, compared to just 18% of those who did not receive surprise bills.

Yet many providers still prefer to send paper invoices. Physical bills sometimes show up months or even a year after the service was performed, leaving patients unprepared for the cost. When the bill does arrive, often without an online payment option, consumers are unsure of the next steps to take. Younger generations raised on digital banking expect immediacy and convenience in how they handle finances.

This kind of system creates a negative experience for patients when they may already be going through challenging healthcare circumstances. Health and financial matters are reportedly two of the most stressful factors in any adult’s life. Merging them together can cause undue stress and anxiety, especially when the process of paying could be a fast and smooth process.

Most consumers prefer digital services

Between 2009 and the present day, billions of dollars and man-hours were invested in digitizing patient records. Having this data in a more accessible format has proven invaluable.

We have already seen the benefits of that investment, and as technology expands and the sharing of records becomes possible, the opportunities are staggering. However, backing for other digital efforts has lagged behind. Isolated services are cropping up here and there, but most providers lack a unified platform to create an inviting and streamlined digital front door for people in need of their services.

In a world where patients increasingly choose a doctor based on online reviews and social media instead of through personal referrals, providers cannot afford outdated digital portals, poor communication with patients or a clunky billing process that puts the onus on the patient to find a way to get their money where it needs to be.

The preference for digital solutions is even more apparent among future generations. More than half (60%) of millennials are "very" or "extremely" interested in digital services.

As the millennial generation currently has more buying power than any other, ignoring their preferences is a big mistake, especially since data also shows that 61% of patients interested in using patient portals would change healthcare providers to get access to that kind of digital convenience.

Patient experience matters

As health systems confront rising healthcare costs and declining margins, they are under the same pressure as businesses in other industries to improve the user experience.

Looking at that experience as a whole–instead of solving for individual issues as they happen–makes a far larger impact in retaining patients and begins to bridge the divide between the promise of convenient digital processes and actual access to digital services.

Patients want everything about their healthcare to be seamless, from contacting the provider, to receiving care, to the follow-up, to paying the bill, to scheduling the next appointment. While many practices are beginning to offer digital solutions, billing has been slow to follow, even though many patients are eager for it.

Nearly one-third of patients said they would prefer to use digital wallets (16% cited PayPal, 3% cited Apple Pay, 4% cited Google Pay and 4% cited Venmo)to pay for healthcare.

Strikingly, though, only 8% of those surveyed reported having used digital or mobile wallets to pay their providers (4% have used PayPal, 2% have used Apple Pay, 1% have used Google Pay, and 1% have used Venmo).

Providers who can integrate patient-facing services into a single experience that is easy to navigate and understand will be far ahead of their competitors.

One such case in point is St. Joseph’s/Candler, a hospital in Savannah, Georgia, that implemented a tool to send text messages to their patients with their pre-service payment responsibility, including their estimated breakdown for payment.

As a result, St. Joseph’s reported an increase of automated pre-service collections. This increased collection speed, decreased the cost to collect payment and helped patients prepare for the financial implications of their care in advance of their scheduled appointment.

Conclusion

While the need for face-to-face medical care and literal bedside manner will never go away, digital services are undoubtedly a big part of the future of healthcare.

As we look to address discrepancies in how patients are taking advantage of virtual tools, let’s not overlook the financial side of digitization. Streamlined payment in a connected portal can resolve many patient frustrations, improve patient retention and may contribute to more positive health outcomes.

The needs of patients don’t stop when they check out of the building. Let’s work as an industry to make available the digital tools patients need throughout their healthcare journey.

Tom Cox is the president of Experian Health.