Health systems have long wanted to increase digital engagement with patients, through tools such as telemedicine, patient portals, and more. Evidence over the last year indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon for patient acceptance of digital engagement platforms. According to a recent Harris Poll, 42% of Americans used telehealth during the pandemic. Of those, 65% “like the convenience,” while 63% see digital engagement as a way to avoid being exposed to other patients who are sick.

The shift to virtual visits has had a positive effect on adoption of patient portals as well. Patients are shifting from the telephone to digital platforms more and more to communicate with providers. Patients use them to refill prescriptions, book appointments, and access telemedicine visits. These shifts have significant implications for health systems.

Implications for the Business Office

Let’s consider how patients’ preferences for digital engagement impact the health system business office. An October 2020 study published in the Journal of Patient Experience measured both patients’ telehealth and business office “touchpoints.” Across 32 hospitals, the study reviewed digital communication practices, including:

– How patients identified service pricing: While all the hospitals appear to offer pricing information to comply with the new CMS price transparency rule, the formats were diverse and not consistent from site to site.

– How patients received cost estimates: The researchers found that most patients had to call or email the business office. Patients often did not have direct access to a personalized price estimate.

– How patients paid their bills: All sites offered online bill pay. Although, online bill pay was accessible through the organization’s homepage only 50% of the time. Sites varied as to whether they offered integrated statements (e.g., hospital and physician or all health system facilities). In most cases, whether or not they provided integrated statements was not apparent. This makes it difficult for patients to know how many bills to expect after their visit.

CFOs Grow Frustrated with the Status Quo

CFOs aren’t especially happy with the business office status quo. Health systems still rely on paper and manual processes for patient collections. This explains why patient collections often take more than a month for 74% of provider claims. In addition, about 50% of CFOs also want easier access to reports, better dashboards, and enhanced ability to drill into collection and payment data. Effective digital engagement can address these issues and make data more actionable to tailor billing interactions with patients.

Even before the pandemic, one-third of health systems reported flat or declining patient visit volumes. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, that trend has worsened significantly. According to a recent American Hospital Association report, nearly half of all hospitals and health systems released negative operating margins in 2020.

However, health systems that embrace patient preferences for digital engagement stand to realize significant financial benefits. A 2018 industry study found that when patients are satisfied with their billing experience, they will pay their bills 75% of the time. This compares to only 50% when they have a bad experience with the business office.

There are other benefits to a robust bottom line. A 2019 study concluded that:

“Strong financial performance is associated with improved patient-reported experience of care, the strongest component distinguishing quality and safety.”

Patients Want Digital Engagement

Patients are hungry for more digital engagement with their healthcare providers. In Patientco’s Patient Communication Trends to Watch survey report, more than 70% of patients stated they want digital communications over paper.

Patients interact with their health system at multiple touch points along their care journey, so how health systems engage matters. Today’s generation of patients grew up in a connected world and the pandemic has made all of us even more reliant on digital engagement. Health systems must adapt their communication and patient engagement strategies accordingly. Health systems that meet patient expectations for digital on both the front- and back-end of the care experience will emerge as post-pandemic market leaders.

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.