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Analysis

Why Paying Your Hospital Bill Is Not Like Making a Retail Purchase

By Alexandra Wilson Pecci  
   November 27, 2019

While moving the entire patient financial experience online might sound like a good idea in theory, it likely wouldn't work in practice, says Chris Johnson, vice president of revenue cycle management for Atrium Health.

Wouldn't it be nice if paying your healthcare bill was as easy as booking a flight?

Chris Johnson, vice president of revenue cycle management for Atrium Health in North Carolina, has heard this analogy a lot.

Healthcare should be just like the airline industry and be completely self-service, Johnson says he hears others say. In this ideal world, patients would simply go online, pay their bill, and be done, without ever having to see a piece of paper or talk to anyone on the phone.

Data seems to back up this idea. For instance, a new report recently showed that patients would rather make their healthcare appointments online without speaking to anyone.

They don't want to spend time on hold; go back and forth discussing competing calendars; or play phone tag with scheduling representatives.

In addition, data from the Michigan insurer Priority Health, which just launched a new app for members, shows that 85% of its members prefer to self-serve online, rather than talking on the phone.

While moving the entire patient financial experience online might sound like a good idea in theory, though, it likely wouldn't work in practice.

Healthcare bills are inherently more complex than airline tickets and sometimes, even the most tech-savvy consumer accessing the most robust online payment tools might have a question or need help.

"If you complicate the process—even with the online portal—or you make it difficult for me … and I get frustrated, I'm very likely to opt out of paying online, and I may or may not call you," Johnson says. "And even if I do, I'm probably going to forget … until you send me the next statement."

That's why Johnson believes the revenue cycle cannot move entirely to the self-service model. Instead, health systems should do everything in their power to help patients who want to pay their bill do so easily, however they want to, and without ever having to decipher anything confusing along the way. 

This might lead to strategies like using customer segmentation to understand patient behavior and preferences; providing e-statements to patients who want them; and making sure to provide a wide variety of payment options that "resonate" with patients.

For example, Atrium Health offers payment plans for "anyone who can possibly need one," Johnson says, via the patient financing program AccessOne, which doesn't require a qualification process, credit reporting, or credit check, and patients can set the plans up online.

There are interest-free and interest-bearing options, and the terms vary based on the size of the balance. Patients who are eligible for financial assistance but still have a balance due never accrue interest on their payment plans, Johnson says.

It all adds up to the same thing: Making the patient financial experience as easy as possible by providing multiple avenues to the same destination.

"It is our goal to give our patients every single option that we can think of—and that they can dream of—to pay their bill," Johnson says.

Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders.


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