Cost fears prevent patients from establishing solid relationships with their healthcare providers. According to Patientco’s 2021 State of the Patient Financial Experience Report, cost fears are the #1 reason patients defer recommended healthcare treatment. Nearly a third of patients told Patientco they had avoided care because of stress over what they would owe. Some 15% also reported they skipped care because they had no health insurance, which contributes to higher out-of-pocket costs.

Even when patients do seek care, their out-of-pocket costs are a significant source of stress. Nearly half of patients, 45%, need financial assistance with an outstanding medical balance of more than $500. The need for help climbs to 66% of patients when a hospital bill tops $1,000. And when patients need help to afford a medical bill, but they don’t receive support – whether through flexible payment options or financing – they are less likely to trust their provider for their future care needs.

The Psychology of Fear

Research on human response to fear supports these findings. In a recent article reviewing research into behavioral economics, “there may be no more pertinent emotion than fear” linked to poor decision making.

Fear causes us to slam on the brakes instead of steering into the skid, immobilizes as when we have greatest need for strength… feelings of dread [are] the major determiner of public perception and acceptance of risk for a wide range of hazards… fear is also associated with greater pessimism and feelings of unpredictability about the future as well as lower feelings of self-control.”

Help Patients Get Over Their Cost Fears

Good communication can resolve patients’ cost fears. Therefore, it’s time to rise above the status quo when it comes to communicating a patient’s out-of-pocket costs and give patients the billing experience they expect. In fact, we’ve asked thousands of patients about their healthcare bills for three consecutive years.

Their responses reveal what it takes to help them overcome their cost fears.

1. Price estimates determine whether patients will move forward with care. 

According to last year’s State of the Patient Financial Experience Report, 70% of patients who have received a pre-service estimate reported that it influenced their decision to move ahead with treatment. However, the 2021 survey report reveals that nearly 1 in 4 patients cancel their visit because of sticker shock after receiving an estimate. Meanwhile, 15% of patients shopped around for a lower cost at another provider and nearly 1 in 5 patients asked about payment plans. These stats prove that price transparency alone cannot resolve patients’ cost fears.

Patients need more than just price transparency – they also need to know how they can afford their care. Make sure patients can access personalized payment options before they receive care. Upfront, affordable payment options on estimates help ensure patients keep their scheduled appointment, reducing the risk of no-shows and the likelihood that patients will shop around for another provider with a lower cost. 

2. Communication and payment options influence patient loyalty. 

Patients stay loyal to providers who address their cost fears with affordable payment options. According to Patientco’s 2020 survey report, close to one-third of patients would switch providers to access affordable payment options. In this year’s survey report, patients also expressed their appreciation for providers that make it easy to communicate digitally. In fact, 1 in 4 patients remain loyal to their provider because it’s easy to schedule an appointment or communicate with their provider digitally.

To engage patients and foster loyalty, health systems need to offer a variety of flexible payment options. This includes payment plans, longer-term financing options and the ability to schedule future payments. Your health system can support other payment options as well to address patients’ cost fears. What you choose to offer just depends on what works best for your organization and patient population.

In addition, ensure patients have a way to engage digitally, whether it’s through secure messages via an online portal or real-time chat. Digital channels, such as chat or messaging allow patients to reach out using their preferred device at a time that works for them, not just during business hours. This means fewer calls for your team to field while patients don’t have to call and wait on hold to ask a simple question.

3. Patients need personalized payment arrangements that they can manage themselves. 

Bill balances impact affordability according to this year’s survey report. Nearly half of patients, 45%, need financial assistance for bills over $500 and 2 in 3 patients would need assistance for bills that exceed $1,000. Therefore, to address cost fears, health systems must consider bill balance as part of their strategy.

Make sure there’s a personalized payment option for everyone. Keep in mind that what works for one patient, may not work for another patient. That’s why offering a variety of tailored payment options that factor in bill balance amount is recommended. Looking at a patient’s bill balance powers a more personalized interaction and ensures each patient has a way to engage and manage their healthcare expenses. 

Foster Trust, Not Fear with Better Financial Communication

Patients don’t want to hunt for phone numbers to the business office. They don’t want to wait on hold to speak to a financial counselor. They don’t want to be intimidated by old balance billing arrangements. Patients want an entirely new empathetic experience that calms their cost fears and gives them confidence in their hospital.

Such a solution is available. The time for health systems to act is now.

Meet the Author: John W. Mitchell’s job titles have ranged from sailor in the U.S. Navy (broadcast-journalist aboard an aircraft carrier) to COO and CEO for several hospitals. In 2009, HealthLeaders Media named John and his senior executive team the Top Leadership Team in Healthcare for turning around a 90-bed, regional Washington hospital. In 2012, he started his own business, SnowPack Public Relations. John is widely published as a freelance reporter and writer in the hospital, healthcare, and medical sectors. More recently, his projects include writing content on behalf of Patientco. John is also the author of the novel Medical Necessity (four stars on Amazon), and he is a commercially successful landscape and wildlife photographer.