A generation ago, patients didn’t think of themselves as healthcare consumers because the transactional part of the process was largely taken care of by their insurance provider and evaluating the cost was not a big consideration for most.
That, of course, has changed dramatically as individuals pay an ever-larger share of the cost of care directly out of pocket, Synchrony Health and Wellness Health and Wellness Senior Vice President and General Manager Health Systems Shannon Burke told PYMNTS in a recent conversation.
“Patients are becoming healthcare consumers because of the increasing cost of care and the shift of those costs from insurance companies to individuals,” she said. “The solution, or one of the solutions that providers are offering, is flexible financing options to help patients pay for their healthcare costs that aren’t covered in other ways.”
Likewise, practitioners who are traditionally tasked with looking after patients’ well-being are increasingly finding themselves having to also consider financial realities at a time when consumers have over $140 billion of unpaid medical debt.
As a result, she said the financial journey and the health journey are becoming woven together in the modern context of providing care — and physicians realize that not talking about finances with their patients is doing them a disservice.
The new consideration for providers, Burke said, is how to have those conversations about payment and when to have them.
The Care Journey
She said that the last thing a patient needs is uncertainty — a reality that extends to both their treatment course and their payments path. Leaving consumers to wander through an opaque and complex billing system that is not only bad for their health but is also 100 percent avoidable simply by moving the payment conversation earlier in the process.
Practitioners, she said, need to get better about estimating what costs the consumer is going to bear at the outset and then offer consumers variety and flexibility in how those payments can be made. That will require health systems to change and move away from the blind bill processes of the past and into partnerships that will enable them to offer patients robust choices at the beginning of the process.
“Patients have been very clear about this and absolutely are looking for more choice, flexibility and a personalized approach to financing their portion of the care,” Burke said. “Providers are having to change their behavior. Now I’m really thinking about, if my patients are requiring me to give them a choice for financing, how can I give them flexibility and make it personalized to them?”
And while that progress is hard to envision in real time, she noted the revenue cycle management (RCM) process has in recent years risen to the level of “heroics” when it has come to making expanded payments options possible.
Pushing To The Transparency Trend
No one wants a surprise medical bill or a sudden scramble to cover an extremely big expense. It’s something that happens increasingly to consumers in critical care contexts when bills show up weeks or months later and are wildly out of proportion to what the patient is expecting.
However, one area where this doesn’t happen — and hasn’t historically happened — is in the world of elective procedures like plastic surgery or cosmetic dentistry. Places where consumers expect to pick up the bill and a detailed invoice can actually be provided ahead of time.
Financing options have long been available in this segment but what’s happening now, she noted, is a rather rapid expansion into non-elective medical treatment where paying patients are increasingly demanding the same level of foreknowledge of what they are going to pay as well as a plan to pay it.
“We all know that any kind of surprise cost after the fact is not good, and it really erodes your overall satisfaction [with the experience and the provider],” Burke said. “So I think patients are engaging more and are less willing to be surprised at the end.”