Consumer-driven healthcare has been slow to catch on, but healthcare organizations of all kinds are realizing that it can't hurt to pay more attention to customer service. Helping patients wade through the muck of medical bills is a good start.
"What is it that patients really want in the bills?" asks Scott Johnston, a technical director of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which last month kicked off the second phase of its Patient Friendly Billing initiative.
What they do not want is confusion from a jargon-laden explanation of benefits and a statement in which the actual out-of-pocket charge is hidden amidst a maelstrom of line items, code numbers and various other minutiae that are meaningless to the average patient.
The rationale is simple: "When patients really understand their bills, they pay them quicker," Johnston says.
Westchester, Ill.-based HFMA and the American Hospital Association in Chicago began Patient Friendly Billing two years ago, relying on the philosophy that good data collection on the front end translates into better financial management. The Englewood, Colo.-based Medical Group Management Association joined a few months later to extend the effort to physician practices.
For the new phase of Patient Friendly Billing, the partner organizations developed best practices for billing, a glossary of billing terms for patients, sample invoices and answers to frequently asked questions about medical bills.
"We came out with a glossary and made (the language) common English," rather than legal or Medicare-only terms, Johnston says. HFMA recommends that practices and hospitals stay away from abbreviations and medical jargon and leave procedure and diagnosis codes off bills to avoid confusing patients.
"The No. 1 question we found that patients ask is, `How much do I owe?"' says Debbie Welle-Powell, vice president for managed care and network development at Exempla Healthcare, Denver, and an MGMA representative to the Patient Friendly Billing task force.
The second phase also includes general customer-service recommendations, such as having telephone protocols so patients can reach the right person to get their questions answered when they call, and automating Web sites to allow patients to request appointments, check payment status, update insurance information and pay bills online.
"Wait to send insured patients a bill until after insurance has paid," says a newly released Patient Friendly Billing checklist for providers. "This makes it more likely that the amount the patient owes is accurate, and patients generally do not want to pay until then. If the hospital or medical group practice and the insurer have not resolved the claim within 45 to 60 days, give the patient an update on the status of the account."
As Johnston puts it, "Patients don't really want to hear until the bill is settled by the insurance companies."
This time around, Patient Friendly Billing participants engaged seven billing and practice management software vendors to educate them on the importance of simplifying invoices.
"One of the largest barriers was vendors that make billing systems," Johnston says, adding that the companies have been receptive to the idea.
"Patient satisfaction is more than just outcomes," he says.
Six ways to simplifyThe Patient Friendly Billing task force identifies six measurements for healthcare providers to gauge the success of simplifying patient invoices:
Source: Healthcare Financial Management Association