This is personal. We recently ended a six-month saga related to a hospital bill. The negative experience ended on a positive note with a nearly two hour meeting with a hospital senior director. The senior director was genuine and transparent. But everyone will not withstand the rigors of hospital billing to always reach someone like her. Our trust in the billing process additionally eroded after numerous negative stories recently in the media about hospital charges. One of the most important steps to building public relations is building strong communications with patients, who perhaps more than any other group, discuss a medical facility’s actions with friends, colleagues and on social media. We shared most of the following suggestions with the senior director on how to improve the communication between hospitals and patients during the billing process. Some hospitals may already take the following steps.
1. Do not force patients to request itemized bills. Many in the public believe hospitals do not automatically offer itemized bills in hopes it will increase the chances of patients not questioning charges. Due to insurance, many patients may not be motivated to request these itemized bills. Hospitals may not believe they have an incentive in this area to spend the time and money to somehow provide automatically itemized bills to patients. But due to changes in the healthcare system, our understanding is more patients will want to know how each penny was spent. Hospitals should build cost-effective patient portals on their websites to ensure patients can easily review itemized bills.
2. Automatically audit patient bills. Our bill went through two reviews. The hospital removed charges in each case. Hospital billing and personnel are very complex. Mistakes happen. Hospitals should acknowledge this aspect of their industry and take an extra step to ensure no one pays for something they should not.
3. Employ software that will translate medical codes and bills into language patients can understand. This is easier said than done but very important. Geniuses should stop trying to build the next Facebook and should focus their talents on something of the sort.
4. Find methods to educate patients that not everyone providing treatment actually works for the hospital. Many patients do not realize that physicians from outside contracted medical groups are providing treatment. This confuses patients when the outside medical group sends patients a bill. Hospital should assign someone to explain this to patients during their hospital stays or at least outline these relationships in writing.
5. Allow patients to make appointments with people who are well educated on explaining invoices. This responsibility cannot be left to members of a call center, who often cannot answer questions other than the basic ones.
6. Some people in finance excel in numbers but not personality. Employees falling under this description should not be in contact with patients. Communication with patients stretches beyond numbers. Hospitals must show compassion and a genuine understanding that the billing process is confusing. Hospitals should bestow this responsibility to people who are skilled in translating medical lingo into a language other than what we call “hospitaleze.”
7. Find ways to overcome privacy concerns and proactively push positive stories to the media. Too many hospitals are only reactive and simply play defense.
8. Maintain an ongoing list of patients who are willing to share their positive experiences. Hospitals should request these patients share their stories in videos, blogs and the media.
9. Build relationships with a certain number of journalists they can trust in good times and bad. Some hospitals complain they are victims of untrustworthy reporters who seek nothing but sensational stories. Turning to an established list of veteran reporters can help open an honest channel of communication during times of crises.