If a patient calls your practice asking for directions to your office, the receptionist can provide them. If he has a concern about his medication, your nurse is almost always able to resolve it. If he shows up asking if his pesky cough is a symptom of strep throat, the doctor can give him an answer.
But what happens if that patient telephones to ask about the charges on his last statement? In many a practice, that call ends unresolved.
Unacceptable – But All Too Common
Ask around to your friends and family – it’s highly likely that more than one of them can recount an unpleasant billing-issue experience of some sort: spending months getting an incorrect charge wiped from a bill; fighting inappropriate insurance denials to no avail; or being repeatedly promised a return call that never comes.
Allowing patients to get tied up in the red tape of your medical billing process is a surefire way to lessen (or even ruin) their overall perception of your practice. Even if they love the treatment they receive from your doctors, nurses and clerical staffers, patients who get the runaround when it comes to billing are certainly not likely to give you a positive review on HealthGrades or recommend your practice to a friend.
In a focus group conducted by HealthCPA, 81 percent of patients surveyed reported anger and frustration with medical bills and, according to the Association of Oncology Social Work, over 50 percent of cancer patients say that their medical bills have had a negative impact on their recovery.
The Root of the Problem
Clearly, billing issues can impact patient outcomes, so resolving them should be important to every employee at every practice – from the MDs to the front desk. So why is it so common for staffer after staffer to dodge those calls or attempt to pass them off to someone else?
The reasons abound. Practices that outsource their medical billing operations are frequent offenders, since they may not have any billing experts around to understand patient charges.
But even offices with in-house billing departments can be guilty of this oversight. If all of your staff members have been trained to take ownership of their individual work, they may not feel comfortable answering questions about a claim or statement processed by a coworker.
It also doesn’t help that, whether they cover your reception desk, handle patient scheduling or take care of coding, your administrative employees are usually busy taking care of their own duties when they answer that patient-billing-issue call. Plus, they may not even have enough knowledge about medical billing to handle it.
Put Someone on the Patient’s Side
What results is the feeling from your patients that they’re up against your practice in a battle for a billing resolution – consider the terminology associated with these issues: “fighting” charges, “disputing” a claim.
Even when all they need is an explanation of why something costs as much as it does, patients won’t feel that their doctor’s office has their best interests in mind when it takes repeated urging to get to their questions answered.
The solution to all that trouble is to give your patients an ally as they navigate the challenges of medical billing. Some practices go so far as to hire an employee to serve as the office’s “financial advocate,” whose duties involve helping your patients understand their health expenses – out-of-pocket and through their health plans – and taking care of special issues like filing, auditing or appealing problem claims upon patient request.
At the very least, you must appoint someone to be the go-to for patient billing questions, rather than just let those calls roll to the back office for the next available person to handle. This “patient billing support” rep can be a member of your billing team or a knowledgeable clerical staffer who can act as a liaison between your patients and your outsourcing service.
But it’s not enough to just have a designated point-person for these concerns. Make sure the rest of your clerical team can cover the slack when your advocate or support rep is unavailable.
“Educate onsite staff to answer 80% of patient questions,” advises Mary Pat Whaley of ManageMyPractice.com. “Some questions need a specialized person to answer, but the majority are straightforward. Your receptionist should not have that deer-in-the-headlights look when a question about a bill is posed.”
Providing good healthcare to your patients requires that you acknowledge, respect and recognize the significance of all aspects of your patient’s experience with your practice. Just as you wouldn’t let a patient’s question about his health go unanswered, you shouldn’t let his billing-issue calls go unreturned.
How do you ensure that your patients are pleased with their billing experience?