Physicians, Stop Ignoring Patients' Email Interests

It astounds me on a daily basis how the healthcare industry takes pride in how smart it is about managing patient clinical care. Compared to other countries, the quality of care delivered by American healthcare providers, from an individual physician to our country’s major hospital systems, is second to none. But if you look at how medical practices in the United States handle their finances, particularly revenue cycle management, it looks like something out of the 1980s.

View the typical business office in a medical group and you’d think your eyes were playing tricks. Piles of paper, ledger books, pencils, and the like are far more common than what I call paperlessness: The use of digital systems and communications to prepare, issue, and reconcile bills.

When I talk with practice administrators to learn why they continue to go through the time-sucking, error-prone process of producing paper bills and post payments manually, the most often heard answer is: “It works for us.” Well, I’ll accept that if we were still in 1980, but we’re not.

The healthcare industry is undergoing a set of tsunamis in terms of change; not only in how, when, and where care is provided but how it’s managed as a business. Gone are the days of insurance companies assuring cash flow by way of covering up to 90 percent of the cost. High Deductible Health Plans (HDHP) have obliterated that pleasant experience. The payer will fork over just 50 percent. The rest sits with the healthcare consumer.

And that healthcare consumer isn’t happy about that and won’t necessarily be in a big hurry to pay. The aspect that inhibits prompt payment more than anything has to do with that paper bill. It makes no sense to them and the patient won’t pay something she doesn’t understand.

When I explain that there’s a simpler, less costly way to bill patients, which provides statements they can readily understand electronically, the practice executive sheepishly says something about people being unwilling to provide their email addresses.

Really!?

A recent study by Kaiser-Permanente (KP) looked at email encounters between patient and provider. It found that most like to communicate directly with their providers online. It makes sense. Email is the most common mode people use to communicate. It is by far the function people use most often on their smartphones, the device that’s with them at all times.

Medical business managers point to arduous policy-driven shifts that might not be in the best interest of patients or providers.   A poor reason at best not to embrace electronic communications and paperless billing.

The KP study also found 42 percent of those surveyed with higher out-of-pocket costs reported that email reduced their phone contacts, 36 percent reduced in-person office visits, and 32 percent said emailing improved their overall health. Email helps to keep receptionists off the phone so they can spend more time with patients in the office. Email helps reduce “crazy days” at the office or clinic because it eliminates the “need” to handle things in person.

In the new healthcare world we’re living in, patients are making health decisions as consumers. Hence the use of email to determine if they ought to make an appointment and see the doctor. There’s no point in making a judgement good or bad on this. It’s our reality.

Asking for email addresses doesn’t violate patients’ privacy or security, assuming safeguards are in place. Asking for email addresses means you build better relationships with your patients and be better able to hold them over time. Asking for email addresses will save time and money, increase cash flow, and lower A/R. Because with emails you can communicate with patients more easily, more efficiently and bill in half the time and at half the cost using a paperless payment solution.

Asking for email addresses is the first step. There’s no reason at all not to ask.