Healthcare Takes a Page From Retail’s Omnichannel Payments Playbook

New PYMNTS data reveals that close to half (46%) of U.S. consumers are engaging in healthcare both in-person and via digital means, bringing healthcare firmly into the omnichannel trend that’s already reshaped retailing and is promising the same for a reforming healthcare system.

It’s a shift that makes sense from the consumer-patient perspective, as well as that of the healthcare provider, whose practice is much changed after two-plus years of pandemic walked right into runaway inflation without taking a breath.

As healthcare delivery and payments move to embrace an omnichannel model, that level of connectedness promises to revolutionize the consumer-patient journey with an end-to-end experience that’s easier on consumers’ mind-body health and their financial wellness.

Speaking with PYMNTS’ Karen Webster on aspects of digital experience in healthcare, Shannon Burke, senior vice president and general manager of health systems at Synchrony, said, “What omni brings — and in retail, we’re so much further ahead — is that next step up. That next step is a big step, which is how do you make [systems] work seamlessly together to provide a single patient experience?”

Paying for healthcare was historically treated as an afterthought, she said, and the emergence of highly-interconnected omnichannel healthcare brings it all together into a single flow.

See also: The Connected Economy™: Omnichannel Healthcare Takes Center Stage

“That clinical and financial journey, starting at the beginning, needs to be woven together. It can no longer be a separate journey,” she said. “It’s that philosophical understanding that payment is as important to the patient, and patients will make decisions on their payment experience the same way they do their clinical.”

Doing this necessitates new tools and solutions for the practice that invite engagement from the consumer-patient, be it checking into an online patient portal or doing a telehealth visit. That’s what platforms like Synchrony are doing on the payments side, which now must be harmonized with the other tools and touch points along a connected patient journey.

‘No Surprises’ Means Just That

Burke is a proponent of discussing medical costs with patient-consumers upfront as part of the overall treatment planning process, as she and Webster agreed it’s the unexpected medical bill that hammers the heart rate.

“When you think about the whole financial journey and the whole clinical journey, it’s many conversations. It’s a process,” she said. “Part of the scariness is embedded in the surprise factor at the end. You might know it’s big, but you don’t know how big it was. That’s a challenge for us in healthcare.

“Both clinical and financial workers have to find a way to have those conversations early. We don’t want it to impede their getting care, but the good news is that there’s a whole spectrum of ways to pay in health systems.”

For consumers who qualify, there are tools like the CareCredit card, which functions much like a regular credit card with an open to buy established by one’s credit standing — but only for use in paying for medical treatments.

Burke noted that healthcare financing mechanisms exist, like financial assistance programs and payment plans commonly offered by health systems. The key is “No Surprises” in medical bills, like the act says, but that better payment experience is just now coming to the fore.

Read more: Healthcare Financing Gains Broader Acceptance With Patients, Providers

Keeping costs down and improving the patient journey are where digital innovations like telehealth found their prime use cases through the pandemic, and now it’s serving a different function than the contactless doctor visits that made it a COVID-era sensation.

“Enabling self-service or remote service in any way, we 100% support. And just from a health equity standpoint, I think our statistic is that 41% of people living paycheck to paycheck have utilized or will utilize telehealth,” she said. “But the point is that telehealth has a huge access impact, not only in rural communities, but it also offers the ability to do it cheaper.”

Saying that telehealth offers benefits to providers and patients alike, she said again, the question is how to bring telehealth into a seamless journey from first contact to final payment.

Realizing Interoperability

As health systems approach their transformation, configuring tech stacks to support digital patient experiences and accept payments is easily at the top of the must-have list.

Burke observed that many systems are an agglomeration of acquisitions, organic growth, mergers and the like. It’s a disconnected “heterogeneous quilt of technology,” she said.

This is where work needs to be done eradicating duplicate paperwork — or dropping paper entirely — encouraging patients to use platform tools and take control of their care.

Saying that systems procurement in the sector has gone from best-in-breed to best for the job over that past decade, Burke said, “The good news is that there’s a lot of interoperability work that’s being done between systems and the industry has been working on it for many, many years. They’re trying to get to these single approaches or interoperability approaches that allow us to then provide that experience to you and me as patients.”

That’s a sunny view of a future that hasn’t quite arrived yet, with medical payments and collections still presenting major problems for health systems and practices.

She noted that 90% of healthcare collections today are handled by third parties, and the remaining 10% “was an afterthought” — until it started growing. Now it’s on the radar, “and since that’s growing and since [we are] paying more, we want a better experience,” she said.

That’s the expectation now, and healthcare providers must rise to meet it. Consumers want digital healthcare to act like digital shopping, and that’s the phase we’re entering now.

“We don’t separate out our retail lives from healthcare lives,” Burke said. “We’re well trained to go online for the most part to pay our bills.”