In the aftermath of COVID-19, payment flexibility, digital engagement, and transparency are crucial to improving patient financial experience, recent reports show.

In the wake of COVID-19, calls for patient financing flexibility, a shift to digital payment methods, and a need for increased bill transparency have providers changing course when it comes to improving patient financial experience.

Two recent reports, one from Patientco and another by VisitPay, revealed new insights on the impact of the pandemic on patient financial behaviors and preferences. Both reports concluded that patients are more wary than ever about healthcare costs.

“As the pandemic forced consumers to scrutinize their finances and prioritize which bills to pay, it’s become clear that health systems must offer flexible, tailored payment options to help patients manage medical bills in ways most convenient to them,” said Kent Ivanoff, co-founder and CEO of VisitPay, in a press release.

VisitPay’s report compiled the responses of over 1,600 survey respondents and found that 66 percent of respondents reported COVID-19 implications having the greatest impact on their personal finances in 2020. Meanwhile, 35 percent of respondents would consider putting off COVID-19 treatment in order to avoid hefty medical bills.

In addition, more than one-third of respondents reported being more concerned about the financial burdens associated with contracting COVID-19, rather than actually becoming ill from the virus. Over 30 percent of respondents listed surprise costs as their top frustration when it comes to paying medical bills, followed by confusion surrounding how much of their bill will be covered by insurance.

VisitPay’s report also revealed that preference for paper statements has dropped more than 20 percent from 2019 to 2021, with more patients preferring digital platforms as a means of payment.

“Engaging patients financially not only promotes self-care and better health outcomes, but it also benefits a health system’s bottom line,” the report stated.

“As adoption increases and more patients self-service their payments, health systems can recognize efficiencies across the entire revenue cycle ecosystem. Greater patient engagement and clarity in the financial process translates to increases in payment yield, and an opportunity for health systems to mitigate at least some revenue degradation caused by COVID.”

Patientco’s report of over 3,000 patients and 50 healthcare providers had similar findings. Concerns over out-of-pocket costs are the top reason patients delay treatment. This concern is validated by the observation that 45 percent of surveyed patients would require financial assistance for bills over $500, and 66 percent would require assistance for bills over $1,000.

These concerns are not alleviated by an explanation of benefits (EOB), the report found. Over 50 percent of patients with a PhD or higher had difficulty understanding their medical bills and determining what they owed.

Much like VisitPay’s report, 32 percent of Patientco survey respondents skipped or delayed treatments over cost concerns in 2020, while 27 percent skipped treatment for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Patients 60 years and older were more likely to be concerned about contracting COVID-19.

From the provider’s point of view, more than 50 percent of cancellations in 2020 were due to COVID-19 concerns, and 41 percent of patients cancelled due to cost concerns. Regardless of communication preferences, Patientco’s survey found that 40 percent of providers only send price estimates through a single channel, such as a phone call or email.  

“As our annual report shows, we can’t let the positive progress revert to the status quo as the threat of COVID-19 is contained,” said Bird Blitch, co-founder and CEO of Patientco in a press release. “We must look critically at the systems we have in place to ensure patients are no longer hesitant to receive care—whether due to COVID-19 or cost concerns—to ensure entire communities can thrive and reach their full health potential while our health systems stay funded. In this scenario, everyone wins.”

Recent developments have pointed to artificial intelligence and machine learning as ways to improve patient financial experience. Artificial intelligence algorithms can be implemented by providers to speed up collection rates and identify patterns in data that allow providers to pinpoint personalized financial plans for patients.

The VisitPay and Patientco reports both indicated that confusion and concerns over payments have been delaying crucial care, which in turn worsens health outcomes and decreases overall patient collection amounts, at a time when healthcare systems themselves have been struggling financially. Patient financial experience is essential to improving quality of care and ensuring that patients are not avoiding necessary care purely due to financial concerns.