Column | Consumerism

Patient financial experience: What we’ve learned from COVID-19

Column | Consumerism

Patient financial experience: What we’ve learned from COVID-19

 

Joseph J. Fifer, FHFMA, CPA

For the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was rough sailing to say the least, for everyone on the frontlines of healthcare. The impacts varied; we were in the same storm but not in the same boat, as a popular meme puts it. But it was rough seas all the way around. In conditions like those, it’s hard to focus on anything but staying afloat.

We’re still very much in the middle of the pandemic, and the time horizon remains uncertain. As infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci put it, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.” 

Nevertheless, managing through the pandemic is somewhat less overwhelming than it was at the outset, given what we have learned about the coronavirus and how to deal with it. There are signs that healthcare leaders are getting their sea legs back.

As we come up for air, it’s important to realize that the longstanding challenges facing legacy healthcare stakeholders are still there. And in the case of patients’ dissatisfaction with their financial experience, COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant. The lack of reliable price information has caused additional stress and frustration for patients at a time when they are dealing with urgent concerns about their health.

Although health systems,  health plans and government payers have worked diligently on their response to COVID-19, exceptions, ambiguities and unresolved issues have left many patients with uncertainty about their financial responsibility (and some patients with bills they didn’t expect to have). Anecdotal reports from dissatisfied patients abound online. These frustrations will add fuel to the flames of patients’ previous frustrations with opaque healthcare pricing.

In addition, some patients now know from firsthand experience that they can check in and register by smartphone — even when they are in their car in the hospital parking lot — rather than having to sit in a waiting room to fill out paperwork or to download and print forms in advance. Some hospitals are leveraging smartphones for check-ins and registration as an infection prevention measure, but it’s not a new idea. We’ve known for years that expanding the use  
of smartphones would address consumer expectations for convenience but have largely failed to act on this knowledge. 

This is the actionable moment. And efforts to improve convenience for patients shouldn’t end there. Providers should also reassess workflow, throughput and space utilization with the goals of having patients spend less or even no time in waiting rooms and creating more efficient processes for providers. 

We’re still learning how to return to and maintain an even keel in this pandemic storm. The storm won’t subside anytime soon, and the surges will likely keep coming. Let’s be ready for rising patient expectations by thinking creatively during this time of uncertainty. We can essentially make lemonade out of lemons. 

About the Author

Joseph J. Fifer, FHFMA, CPA,

is President and CEO, HFMA, Westchester, Ill.

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