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As hospitals look at making bills more patient-friendly, they should broaden the focus to include a more patient-centered organization.
That’s a key theme that has emerged from the Patient Friendly Billing Project of the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) and the American Hospital Association (AHA), says Scott Johnston, HFMA’s technical director.
"We went into this looking at, maybe we could blame somebody else for these problems, but we found that we also have to look at ourselves," Johnston adds. "The solution lies not just with the industry as a whole, but also with the individual hospitals."
Initiated more than a year ago, the project’s aim has been to address the general sense among consumers that the health care billing system is out of whack, using a multidisciplinary approach to help providers convey bills that are clear, correct and patient-friendly, says HFMA president and CEO Richard L. Clarke.
That approach includes, among other things, a process that captures and summarizes bills from all providers and automatically matches them with all payments, a single point of contact for the consumer regarding inquiries, complaints or concerns about coverage and payments, and an appeals process to handle disputes.
"We’ve completed our first year, and we’ve released not only a series of reports, but a brochure, and we’ve also launched a web site," Johnston says. (For more information on the project, go to www.patientfriendlybilling.org.)
Feedback from the project’s focus groups — and from focus groups conducted by individual hospitals — revealed that the way consumers look at health care isn’t always about clinical outcomes, Johnston points out. "You can have good performance results, but if the food is lousy and no one is paying attention, that may negate [in the patient’s mind] anything good the clinician has done."
The benefit of the focus groups, he notes, is in "finding out what patients’ concerns are and then addressing them, listening more, and getting more in tune with patients." Just taking other hospitals’ findings and acting on them doesn’t accomplish the same thing, says Johnston, who recommends that all hospitals use focus groups or patient advocacy groups as important resources.
It’s about "little things," he says, "like not making popcorn in the employee lounge that cancer patients have to walk by, because the smell upsets those who are going through certain treatments. That was driving some of the patients nuts."
Another example, Johnston adds, is informing patients that there are two ways to get into the hospital parking lot that they don’t know unless they’re told.
"The idea of the consumer in health care is very new," he says. "It’s the idea that patients have a choice and they’re going to start exercising that choice."
Reaction to the billing project from payers and vendors has been that it’s unique for the health care industry to be focusing on patients for once, Johnston notes. "When you think of patient financial services, you think of going back and forth between hospitals and payers. But we have found that patients perceive themselves as being caught in the middle without any help."
"The whole idea behind patient-friendly billing is to address that," he adds. "We feel this is a very important initiative for all hospitals to consider. This is something we can kind of give back."