• September 22, 2023

Digitizing Empathy: How Technology Can Help Solve Patient Financial Distress

Close to half of patients postponed procedures and treatment in 2020 because they couldn’t afford it.

The financial experience in healthcare significantly impacts patient decision-making, the quality of care they receive, and adds additional distress to an already vulnerable situation.

“Patients need a seamless financial experience that alleviates the stress of medical expense by proactively taking into account their financial status and providing them a real path forward for payment,” says Michael Strickland, VP of product at Flywire.

Below, Strickland describes how omnichannel engagement integrated with digital payment solutions can deliver a more personalized and empathetic experience for patients that is easy to use, stress-free, and affordable.

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

Strickland: We think about patient distress in a few different ways. First, there is pure financial stress. The data tells us that roughly 50% of Americans can’t afford to pay an unexpected $400 medical expense. The majority of healthcare bills we see on our platform are much higher than that amount. This financial stress is compounded by daunting medical bills and healthcare providers’ traditional payment methods, such as one-time payments or short-term interest-free payment plans, that may not work for patients. The front-end pre-service experience is also distressing due to a complete lack of transparency around healthcare costs. Patients need to understand up front what they will be paying for their medical care and what financial options are available to them. Recently, my wife gave birth to our first son, and there was no indication of how much this would cost, how much insurance would pay, and when we would receive a bill. I was left anticipating a bill ranging from $500 to $5,000. For patients, this is a significant impediment to even scheduling an appointment to receive care.

Q: How can technology bring greater empathy into the process and help alleviate the stress around the financial experience?

Strickland: In a digital experience, empathy can mean a lot of things. The first priority should be to know the patient. If you want to empathize with somebody, you need to imagine yourself in their shoes. Digitally, this means learning how the person likes to be engaged. For example, do they prefer text or email? Do they want you to connect with them on weekends or weekdays? Second, it also means learning a person’s capacity 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 handle their financial journey, but part of being empathetic also means constantly checking in and asking for patient feedback on how you are doing. One of our large health system customers has successfully used technology to boost empathy and a patient-centric mindset. They have created a patient persona with a set of tangible patient characteristics that helps them understand how patients like to be engaged. We have worked together to take the surprise out of the billing experience. Now, every patient gets an estimate at the point of service and a personalized payment option to pay that estimate.

Q: How does better engagement improve this process?   

Strickland: Meaningful engagement is critical and involves using all available methods intelligently, including paper, email, text, chat, and phone conversations, to drive positive business outcomes. Healthcare organizations can use predictive analytics and omnichannel engagement to learn, for example, that a particular patient likes to be engaged by text on weekdays before dinner. This adaptive conversation can be mapped onto 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 require assistance only when the billing experience is ineffective. It’s important to internalize this ethic and then build an experience that makes it as easy as possible for patients to handle their own payments. Start with big ideas such as getting patients into the financial experience as fast as possible. For example, offer a point-of-sale transaction that is seamless and doesn’t involve account setup and activation. Run constant user experience tests for feedback on the quality of the experience. This ethic will guide your pursuit of creating an easy experience. Finally, work with staff and providers to understand why people are picking up the phone. Is it a preference, or is it because they ran into a problem with your site? Healthcare organizations can expect to see 90% self-service adoption when using these methods with the right digital platform.