Fair or not, patients compare their registration experience with the check-in process at a nice hotel, making reservations at their favorite Italian restaurant, or the ease of buying a new sweater online. How would your department measure up?

“If you look at other industries, many times front desk clerks at hotels have had more customer service training than registration staff,” says Richard L. Gundling, FHFMA, CMA, vice president of healthcare financial practices at Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA).

Gundling urges cycle leaders to “walk through their registration, admission, and preservice processes through the eyes of a consumer.”

One obvious issue is that registrars are not used to trying to live up to the same service standards as employees in other industries. “Yet the registration staff is dealing with consumers with far more complicated needs,” Gundling notes.

Until recently, hospitals focused solely on the clinical experience when considering patient satisfaction. “But to the consumer, the financial experience is very important,” Gundling says. There are several opportunities for registrars to impress patients with great service:

When giving a price estimate. The amount owed is going to be the same regardless of how the information is delivered. “When you communicate their financial obligation, do you do it with compassion?” Gundling asks.

It is not a good idea to wait for the patient to bring up the topic of financials; most will not. “Talking about money is uncomfortable for people, so the registrar should open up the conversation,” Gundling suggests.

When explaining healthcare benefits. Many people know next to nothing about how their coverage works. Even savvy healthcare consumers get confused by the terminology.

They are going to look to the first person they encounter (the registrar) for some help. “It’s probably the first time somebody’s talked to them about their coverage,” Gundling offers.

When collecting. “A $2,500 deductible sounds abstract on paper until you need to pay it,” Gundling notes. Simply asking, “Can you afford this?” is a good start. “That question is often like a relief valve. You are saying, ‘How are we, together, going to solve this?’” Gundling explains.

If the patient says no, it opens the door for the registrar to offer some good options. “A lot of times, people don’t have $2,500 at their disposal,” Gundling observes. The patient may not realize a payment plan or zero-interest loan is possible, or that he or she might even qualify for financial assistance. The registrar could ask, “Would you like to complete the application to see if your income allows you to get a discount?”

Some patients experience sticker shock. They just need time to absorb the information and come up with a plan. It is possible that the patient may decide to borrow money, reschedule an elective surgery, or put it all on a payment plan. Many wrongly fear they will need to come up with the entire amount immediately. “The idea is to communicate that it’s not ‘all or nothing,’” Gundling adds.

When a patient is upset for any reason. The “customers” registrars are dealing with are not buying shoes or making a dinner reservation. “Some are sick or injured or worried about their health. They are stressed and often scared,” Gundling says.

Some really need a family member or friend with them when talking about a hospital bill, just as they do when talking about medical issues. Anxious patients often remember little of what a doctor tells them, Gundling notes: “The same is true of financial discussions.”

On the positive side, a good encounter with a friendly registrar produces lasting effects. “If they remember talking to the nice registrar about their $1,000 deductible, and they get a bill for $1,000, it takes away the feeling of being tricked,” Gundling says.