Why Digital-First Communications Drive Better Patient Financial Performance

Aligning 2022 strategy with evolving trends

digital medical

By Mark Spinner

Digital-first communications have quickly become more than a “nice to have” in healthcare revenue cycle. For hospitals and health systems, they are also a critical way to support health equity, activate financial engagement and drive faster payment. 

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As patient financial responsibility continues to climb, with the average family deductible reaching $1,644, strengthening financial communications helps ensure individuals receive the care they need. It also helps protect an organization’s financial health by engaging consumers in their preferred format. 

An AccessOne survey of 1,000 consumers conducted in late 2021 suggests that when financial communications are sent digitally, open rates and financial engagement increase:

  • Half of respondents said they would open financial communications sent by text in five minutes or less. 
  • When payment notifications are sent digitally, about half of consumers will pay through a digital channel in less than one hour. 
  • One-third of consumers will pay their bill in five minutes or less when communications are sent via secure text. Response rates are similar for other digital communications (mobile app, 30%; email, 26%; patient portal, 25%).

Understanding these realities can help providers best position for success in 2022 with a digital-first approach that both streamlines and personalizes communication. This investment also addresses growing challenges related to staffing shortages in healthcare revenue cycle departments. The result: a better patient experience that drives higher rates of out-of-pocket collections.

Designing the Right Digital Approach

What are the keys to designing digital-first communications around patient financial responsibility? The following approaches stand out.

Taking consumers’ communication preferences into account from the start of the patient financial journey.

Although one-in-four consumers still prefer to receive print communications regarding healthcare costs and payment options, most prefer to communicate by phone or digitally, especially via email (39%) or the patient portal (31%). Engaging patients via their preferred communication vehicle increases the potential for meaningful interactions around affordability of care, an area of high concern for consumers. 

Consider that more than half of consumers (58%) delayed medical care to avoid a healthcare bill in 2021. As the percentage of people suffering from economic hardship rises, especially among people of color and families with children, moving toward digital-first communications around healthcare costs and payment offers a convenient and always-on way for consumers to get the answers they need. It also reduces friction by eliminating unnecessary steps or wait times for customer service. And, when paired with the ability to self-enroll in payment plans or apply for financial assistance, digital offerings help relieve the pressures of healthcare costs and make bill resolution more manageable. 

Leveraging digital communications to address top pain points in the patient financial experience.

Today, 41% of consumers need help decoding medical bills to determine the amount their insurance will pay, the consumer survey indicates. Meanwhile, 42% of households with income of $50,000 or less are only somewhat satisfied or not at all satisfied with the information they receive regarding how to pay their medical expenses. Using digital touchpoints to answer consumers’ most pressing questions—including their financial responsibility after insurance—can speed access to the information consumers most need. This offers the potential to take some of the financial weight of care off consumers’ shoulders by ensuring they have accurate information regarding their costs and their options. It also enhances efficiency at a time when many healthcare revenue cycle departments are short-staffed.

One way to provide the information consumers need early in their healthcare decision-making process is to use digital communications to engage consumers after financial estimates are delivered. Leading organizations connect with consumers digitally or by phone within 24 hours of financial estimates being delivered, including when online calculators are used. This provides an opportunity to verify that the estimate is correct based on the consumer’s financial information, including insurance coverage. It also enables the organization to share information regarding the range of payment options available. These steps give consumers peace of mind that the hospital will work with them on payment.

Modernizing the bill payment experience.

For instance, text-based payment solutions reduce the need for paper statements, mobile apps or portal logins, creating a more immediate patient financial experience. With these solutions, healthcare organizations can begin to measure self-pay collections in hours or days rather than months. At EvergreenHealth in Washington, for example, revenue cycle staff collect nearly 30% of patient self-pay balances via text messaging, with 75% of all payments coming within two weeks of a patient balance being created. That’s significant at a time when most hospitals and health systems collect just 55% of what is owed by patients due to staff shortages, the economic challenges faced by consumers, or a cumbersome payment experience.

Adding self-service options for bill payment to the patient portal is another option organizations are exploring. At one large academic health system, all patients qualify for no-interest or low-interest payment plans, which they can choose based on their needs. For instance, some patients immediately choose a low-interest payment plan over a no-interest plan because the monthly payments are lower and fit within their budget. When a patient who initially opted for a zero-interest payment plan decides to switch to a low-interest plan to lower their monthly payment, the portal’s self-service features enable them to do so on their own. This flexibility prevents defaults by meeting patients where they are—appealing not just to their desire for self-service options, but also taking their financial status into account. It’s an approach that increases patient satisfaction and the patient financial experience. 

One key to success: Communicate bill payment options broadly.

By investing in digital-first communications and tailoring communication approaches to the patient, healthcare revenue cycle departments can more effectively activate the financial behavior they wish to see while providing a valuable resource for patients.

Mark Spinner is president and CEO, AccessOne, a leading provider of flexible, co-branded patient financing solutions that help patients afford medical expenses for health systems nationwide.

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