Why COVID-19 sustainability is about much more than by-the-numbers operations

By Vicki Ritterband | September 15, 2020


COVID-19 has created significant challenges for many independent medical practices. With in-person visits greatly curtailed, patients with chronic diseases are more likely to experience gaps in care leading to poorer health outcomes. Meanwhile, fewer visits means less revenue, and collecting payments can be challenging when so many patients are experiencing economic hardship due to job losses and other pandemic-related financial pressures.

But there are many ways that practices can ensure both the physical health of their patients and their own fiscal health and wellbeing. These include proactive communication about identifying care gaps and payment balances, tailored outreach, easy scheduling options, and cost transparency. A recent webinar sponsored by athenahealth shared these and other insights.

The right tools drive communication, sustainability

Three out of every five adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic condition, such as hypertension, diabetes, or depression, and more than two out of five have more than one. People with chronic conditions are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, so practices must carefully manage these illnesses. Tools that identify gaps in care, and others that communicate with patients in their preferred method — whether that be email, text message or phone call — will enhance sustainability, says athenahealth senior manager Dustin Williams.

He notes that athenahealth users open 59 percent of emails from providers compared to an industry average of 19 to 22 percent. And, across more than 100,000-plus users on the network, 18 percent of messages reminding patients of needed care result in a scheduled visit. Ninety-five percent of patients who received a text message reminder to keep their appointment did so, according to a 2015 athenahealth analysis of more than 55 million messages.  No-shows have implications far beyond a single appointment: other network data report that one no-show increases the chance of a patient defecting from a practice by 70 percent. 

Convenience increases payments

Increased patient volume should complement improvements in patient payment collection methods to enhance ongoing sustainability. Some 63 percent of consumers say they prefer paying their medical bills electronically through means like secure online portals, while only 23 percent report that their doctors provide e-payment options, according to InstaMed’s 2019 Trends in Healthcare Payments report. The benefits of mobile payment systems go beyond the balance sheet: patients are 80 percent more likely to return to a primary care practice that offers an online portal for payment and scheduling, athenaNet data show.

Address stress about patients’ ability to pay

Easing the logistics of payments is critical, but just as important is lessening the anxiety for patients around their financial obligations. It’s no secret that healthcare lacks cost transparency. Seventy percent of 2,062 Americans surveyed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New York State Health Foundation think it’s a good idea for providers to discuss costs before ordering treatments, while only 28 percent say price has ever been broached by a doctor or staff member. That disconnect provides an opportunity for practices to be proactive by providing balance information when scheduling appointments. This takes away the stress for patients of showing up for an appointment, possibly not feeling well, and immediately being asked to settle a bill. 

And for offices that offer electronic check-in, patients should have the ability to e-pay for services in advance as well as settle outstanding balances.  Williams also recommended that another best practice is to have office staff review which patients owe money a day or two before they’re due to come in, then coach employees on how to have these discussions. “Cost transparency must become part of the culture and in turn, patients are more likely to stay with the practice and pay their balances,” he said.

To hear more about supporting financial stability during COVID-19, watch this webinar.

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