How to Prioritize Empathy in Healthcare Collections

Health care billing statement with stethoscope, bottle of medicine for doctor's work in medical, The doctor is calculating the cost and signing the name.

Image by 123RF

By Jada Lewis

The healthcare industry continues to rapidly evolve because of the pandemic. COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospitals, led to shortages of essential medical supplies, and has contributed to the financial stress of patients. According to The Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for a high-performing health care system that achieves better access and improved quality, more than 50% of those who were infected with COVID-19 or who lost income due to the pandemic are now struggling with medical debt.  However, the pandemic has also led to innovation and has created an opportunity for every level of the institution, including revenue cycle management (RCM), to reflect, learn, and adapt with the times. 

While RCM and collections once had a negative connotation, the pandemic has presented a unique opportunity for these preconceived notions to change. Healthcare collections have the opportunity to connect with patients on a human level – treating the patient with humanity and empathy as is done within the four walls of the exam room. Moving forward, healthcare organizations must prioritize RCM partnerships and technologies, which emphasize empathy and put the patient first. 

How the industry is evolving around empathy 

Over the last few years, revenue cycle management has started to change, reevaluating processes on how to make it easier for patients to pay, rather than continuing outdated processes that historically prioritized the easiest path for the collector. COVID-19 has been the catalyst, which is actively pushing progress over the finish line. As a society, the pandemic has shed light on everyday inequities and hardships – from COVID-19 health concerns to individuals losing their jobs to struggling to provide for one’s family. As such, we became more empathetic and supportive of others – and RCM was no exception. At the end of the day, the goal of healthcare is providing every patient with the care they need. RCM quickly moved from a “pay now” mentality, to connecting with patients to help them get the healthcare they need when they need it – regardless of immediate ability to pay. 

The shift towards empathy is reflected in new regulations. Regulation F, which passed towards end of 2021, gives more options for patients by adding more mediums for communication with collectors like text and social media and allows them to opt out of a particular method of communication. For instance, if a patient doesn’t want to be contacted by phone, they can request communication through that medium stop. This way patients’ preferred methods for communication are prioritized. The new regulation also encourages transparent, clear communication with patients. When patients are provided a validation notice, they must be provided expanded information that makes it easier for them to identify what is owed and why.

Three of the largest credit reporting firms have also announced this year that they will remove any medical debts that were sent to debt collectors and eventually paid off. Additionally, unpaid medical collection debt won’t appear on credit reports for the first year, whereas the previous grace period was six months. This gives patients more time to work with their health insurers or providers to pay off bills.

The addition of the No Surprises Act in 2022, requiring hospitals to provide clear accessible pricing information, will assist health systems in providing up front expected patient responsibility costs to the patient. The goal being to allow for the ability to work with the patient prior to service to ensure they are aware and understand their portion of expected costs. Further exemplifying the facilities ability to work closely with the patient on ensuring options to manage the amount and that the amount doesn’t prevent receiving necessary healthcare. 

Empathy in practice – inside and outside of the healthcare facility  

So, how can healthcare entities ensure their RCM is projecting empathy? Decision makers and industry leaders can prioritize the following:  

Upfront connection – In the past, discussions around payment and collections have been siloed to after the point of service, trying – often without much success – to reach the patient after they leave the hospital. However, by shifting the mentality to connection at the point of service, administrators can effectively collect the patient’s information upfront, including discussing co-pays, and amplifying transparency around upfront cost. Doing so also allows for the opportunity to qualify a patient for payment assistance they may not know they had access to. Being clear and transparent with patients sets the road map to effective communication and payment upfront and down the line.   

Understand the true patient story – It’s important to know what happens with the patient through the cycle from start to finish. For example, being able to articulate “‘we saw you at this location on this date, here’s what you were treated for with XYZ medication.” This is key in making sure there is a human feeling and interaction for the patient. It’s not just about getting the payment from the patient perspective. Patients want to be treated with respect and kindness and know that the other person. 

Convenience for the patient – Identifying with the patient the best mode of communication prior to service is key. Depending on generation, level of technology understanding, and additional factors, knowing if the patient prefers text, email, or call can dramatically increase the chances of payment. Similarly, understanding what time of contact is best for the patient is key. Knowing when the patient works or is unavailable, will save time and resources for the facility trying to reach them and increase the likelihood of the patient responding. 

Finding the right partner – Finding an industry partner with scalable technology capabilities, as well as a mission in empathy and working alongside patients is key in finding success – both for supporting the bottom line and ensuring convenience in payment for the patient. Having a vendor who can perform all necessary operations within one RCM platform will streamline operations for the facility and patients alike.

Opportunity to reevaluate practices 

While many are hopeful that an end to the pandemic in sight, we can expect to see the trend of empathy in RCM continue. Ensuring patients know they have access to healthcare, while using technology and facilitating partnerships to ensure the most seamless process for administrators and patients alike, will be key. Now is the time to reevaluate processes, find those partners, ensure the bottom line is supported, and prioritize human interaction and empathy. 

Jada Lewis Finvi’s Director of Product Management.