Digitizing Empathy: How Technology Can Help Solve Patient Financial Distress

Nearly half of patients postponed procedures and treatments in 2020 because they couldn’t afford them.

Financial experience in healthcare has a significant impact on patients’ decision-making, the quality of care they receive and adds further distress to an already vulnerable situation.

“Patients need a transparent financial experience that alleviates the stress of medical costs by proactively considering their financial situation and providing them with a real path to payment,” says Michael Strickland, VP of Product at Flywire.

Below, Strickland outlines how omnichannel engagement built into digital payment solutions can provide patients with a more personalized and empathetic experience that’s easy to use, stress-free and affordable.

Q: The current healthcare billing and payment process can often exacerbate an already stressful situation for the patient. Digging deeper, what makes the patient financial experience so stressful today?

Strickland: We think about patient distress in different ways. First, there is pure financial stress. Data tells us that about 50% of Americans cannot afford unexpected medical bills of $400. The majority of healthcare bills we see on our platform are much higher than this amount. This financial stress is compounded by daunting medical bills and traditional healthcare provider payment methods, such as one-time payments or short-term interest-free payment plans, which may not work for patients. The initial pre-service experience is also painful due to a complete lack of transparency regarding healthcare costs. Patients need to understand from the outset what they will pay for their medical care and the financial options available to them. Recently my wife gave birth to our first son, and there was no indication of how much it would cost, how much the insurance would pay, and when we would get a bill. I expected a bill ranging from $500 to $5,000. For patients, this is a significant barrier to even scheduling an appointment to receive care.

Q: How can technology bring more empathy to the process and help ease the stress of the financial experience?

Strickland: In a digital experience, empathy can mean many things. The first priority should be to know the patient. If you want to sympathize with someone, you have to imagine yourself in their place. Digitally, this means learning how the person likes to be engaged. For example, do they prefer SMS or email? Do they want you to communicate with them on weekends or weekdays? Second, it also means knowing a person’s ability to pay, which allows organizations to personalize the payment journey and recommend the best option.

Third, healthcare providers think they know a lot about how patients want to engage and manage their financial journey, but part of being empathetic also means constantly checking in and asking patients for feedback on the way you go. One of our large healthcare system clients successfully used technology to drive empathy and a patient-centered mindset. They created a patient persona with a set of tangible patient characteristics that helps them understand how patients like to be involved. We’ve worked together to take the surprise out of the billing experience. Now, each patient receives a point-of-care estimate and a personalized payment option to pay for that estimate.

Q: How does better engagement improve this process?

Strickland: Meaningful engagement is essential and involves the smart use of all available methods, including paper, email, text, chat and phone conversations, to drive positive business results. Healthcare organizations can use predictive analytics and omnichannel engagement to find out, for example, that a particular patient likes to be engaged via text message on weekdays before dinner. This adaptive conversation can be mapped to an empathetic digital experience that informs the rest of the communication with the patient, allowing them to have the experience they want, including a flexible payment plan. Ultimately, predictive analytics and omnichannel engagement help healthcare organizations determine what to send to patients and when to send it to improve patient satisfaction, collection rates, and other billing outcomes.

Q: What are the best ways to inspire patients and encourage self-service?

Strickland: Qualitative and quantitative research indicates that patients are motivated to use self-service. They typically only need help when the billing experience is inefficient. It’s important to internalize this ethos and then create an experience that makes it as easy as possible for patients to manage their own payments. Start with big ideas like getting patients on board with the financial experience as soon as possible. For example, offer a point-of-sale transaction that is transparent and does not involve account setup and activation. Run constant user experience testing to get quality of experience feedback. This ethic will guide your pursuit of creating an easy experience. Finally, work with staff and providers to understand why people pick up the phone. Is it a preference or is it because they encountered a problem with your site? Healthcare organizations can expect to see 90% self-service adoption when using these methods with the right digital platform.

Sarah J. Greer