The Critical Role of Empathy in Patient Financial Communications

Apex Revenue Technologies

The patient population is diverse when it comes to financial means, situations and preference. Among the 1,000 patients interviewed in our 2016 Patient Financial Experience Report, we see broad disparity in individual frustrations with healthcare billing, and myriad suggestions as to remedies. Patient preferences vary when it comes to composition, language and the ideal payment experience. Influencing factors may include geography, generation, family make-up, balance owed, care history, and technical and financial propensity.

Those preferences may very well diverge even for the same individual based on the type of encounter.

Healthcare financial communications are different than any other:

  • Service is often out of necessity not choice
  • Care is determined regardless of means
  • Patients have little to no control over the amount spent
  • They often don’t understand the amount owed in advance
  • There are emotional considerations in healthcare depending on the type of care and illness

However, when you look at most patient statements today, the only elements that distinguish one patient’s bill from another are their name and their balance. The design, the language used, and the call to action typically don’t reflect any personal understanding of the patient. By and large, billing statements contain the same financial messages, asking for the same call to action, hoping for the same result.

If we took that same approach on the medical side of the relationship with patients – not taking time to understand patient-specific characteristics, history and care preferences – we’d not only waste time and resources, we’d risk not achieving the best outcome for the patient.

So why don’t we strive for that same level of empathy in the patient billing and payment experience? We must – as oftentimes the financial stress caused by medical care far outweighs that of the medical outcome itself.

Healthcare financial communication requires a higher standard.

There’s often a significant emotional element tied to what’s on that bill. Patients are often paying for something that’s physically and emotionally painful. Language should be adjusted situationally, and the tone of the call to action should consider what the patient and family might be struggling with. Heavy financial responsibility, critical illness, and other factors must be factored into the tone of the communications when we consider the patient experience holistically.

Lackluster self-pay performance suggests an urgent need for a revolutionary approach. Financial conversations with patient access staff may touch on a level of patient financial understanding. But they generally don’t carry through to the billing and payment journey in a pervasive way. They may provide cost estimates, evaluate propensity, and discuss payment options during registration or at the point of service, but lose visibility into any personal insight gathered once they reach the back end of the process. When a patient opens their first bill or views it online, the language is static for all. It does not reflect patient needs, preference or understanding.

By developing our financial communications from a point of patient understanding, we increase each patient’s likelihood to pay, carve out cost, and demonstrate a level of empathy that clearly communicates to patients that they are more than their balance