Caring for patients all the way (bills included)

Within doctors’ examination rooms, operating rooms and waiting rooms, clinicians and other staff know the importance of empathy. Caring for patients and loved ones extends beyond one’s medical skills. It also requires a good heart.

As sign-up time for 2018 medical insurance approaches, patients look for a meaningful differentiator in health care providers when deciding whether to stick with their health plan, their primary care provider, and other doctors. On the medical side of our industry, health care systems line up to talk about how caring their doctors and nurses are – and overall, they’re pretty honest in describing their empathetic care providers.

But afterward comes the bill, when too often empathy vanishes — and therein lies a huge potential differentiator.

Just like every provider around the country, Austin Regional Clinic’s well-meaning staff have a hard enough time dealing with insurers and the mysterious language of codes, acronyms, and lingo that relate to our services and billing. It’s a burden that we insiders shoulder on a daily basis.

Imagine our patients’ experience. They deal with complicated, costly financial matters related to complex medical treatment maybe once every few years – or maybe just once ever and, thus, for the first time with us.

One can (too) easily pin blame on the patients. They needed costly treatment due to their own actions or inactions. They signed up for whatever insurance they possess, coverage shortcomings and all.

Regardless, we have a duty to help, whether they are seeking medical care for illness or injury or when they’re dealing with frustration after the bill comes.

Deep down, we know they need to be shepherded all the way through what is a difficult time in their lives. When our patients suffer medically, we have an opportunity to bring genuine healing as we help them recover, so why not extend our empathy as they face related financial costs?

What’s almost certain is that patients will continue to bear more medical costs. Premiums have been on the rise, and this renewal season will be no different.

From its inception, ARC has been an innovator and leader in ongoing efforts to help patients get better value from their health care dollar. One of the best tools in managing health care costs is ready access to primary care, offering the right care in the right place at the right time – hopefully before an issue becomes both a health crisis and financial crisis.

Injuries and illness quite often occur during inconvenient hours, when general medical offices hours are closed. To protect patients from unnecessary sticker shock, we should continue to educate them about lower cost options for non-emergency care (which comprise 90 percent of ER cases) — from after hours to urgent care to telemedicine.

Pharmaceutical medicines make up a large and increasing portion of patients’ out-of-pocket expenses. Physicians can help ease this stress by helping patients sort through the barrage of advertising hype to choose the best medicine for each patient’s situation. Our doctors know which are likely to make a real difference and which are modern day (and often quite costly) snake oil.

Because here’s the inevitable effect of rising costs for patients: if (or when) the cost of care is too high, patients will skip or delay visits to their doctor, timely medical tests or preventative exams. That’s not good for the health of our community or the health of our patients.

Like any business, we need to consider the needs of our customers. Dealing with medical bills is no one’s idea of fun, but we can make it less of a source of stress (a.k.a. deterrent to healing). We can be as caring in how we deal with patients facing medical cost challenges as we are with their health issues.

That may mean helping them consider the cost of different care options; the timing of care around plan years or deductibles; or simply allowing more time for structured payment plans for larger bills. It may also mean helping them understand what other bills they might expect from a hospital or an anesthesiologist and how their choices can affect those costs.

In so many ways, we demonstrate empathy to our patients. Let’s not forget that later on, when dealing with the balance due.

Ted Matthews is chief financial officer, Austin Regional Clinic and Covenant Management Systems, Austin, TX.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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