When assessing communication efforts between physicians and their patients, it’s easy to conjure up the line from the Paul Newman film classic Cool Hand Luke. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
That may sound overly dramatic, but it’s accurate. Physicians have historically resisted communicating with their patients via electronic means, while patients crave the ability to communicate more frequently and/or conveniently with their physicians. Consider the results of a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive health-care poll that found that 77 percent of patients want to ask questions of their physician where no visit is necessary; and 71 percent want to obtain a new prescription for medication.
“I cannot spend 30 minutes on the phone on hold from work trying to get through to my physician, but I certainly can log in at night and take the time to make an appointment or request a prescription renewal,” explains Kim Labow, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for NaviNet, a real-time healthcare communications network. “I think a lot of physicians are starting to see the value in that.”
Last year, nearly 170,000 primary care physician offices used NaviNet for more than 250 million administrative, clinical and financial electronic transactions with leading insurers across the country. Doing so improved revenue cycles and workflow efficiencies while reducing administrative costs.
Recently the company announced the addition of RelayHealth Patient Messaging and Online Bill Pay—tools that Labow says can further improve a practice’s bottom line.
“Forget about all the bells and whistles,” she says. “At the end of the day, secure, online patient communication, just by reducing print and mail costs, will pay for itself in three to six months.” Labow points to the inefficiencies that exist in a typical physician practice—from the time and cost to send appointment reminders to the phone time required for prescription renewals and treatment referrals. “When you virtually eliminate all of that by moving those functions online, the cost savings alone are staggering.”
There are also the benefits from increased patient satisfaction. According to the Wall Street Journal study, 62 percent of patients said the ability to communicate with their doctors to ask routine questions or get prescription renewals would influence their choice of healthcare provider.
“The smart and savvy doctors will market this [increased communication capability] via their website, or telephone on-hold messages, or a notice that is included with every appointment reminder that is sent out,” Labow says. “That’s how physicians get and keep their patients; how they get and keep their good patients.”
Willingness to pay
Labow echoes the results of the Wall Street Journal study, noting that more and more, consumers are willing to pay for certain healthcare-related services, such as electronic visits with their physician. She points out that a huge portion of those visits are already being paid for by patients. Many patients are more than willing to pay a $30 charge to have an e-visit with their physician for a recurring, non-emergent situation as opposed to having to take a half day off from work for an office visit.
“Regardless of the reimbursement angle from payors, which has been relatively slow, the patient-responsible piece is huge,” Labow says. “And to many patients, it’s worth it, because they have a potential $20 copay anyway.”
NaviNet’s new Online Patient Bill Pay feature is also a patient-convenience factor, as well as a boost to a physician’s bottom line. Labow explains that in today’s economy, if patients are sitting at their kitchen table holding a $100 invoice from their physician and a $100 invoice from their electric company, there’s no question their money is first going to go to keep their lights on.
In addition, physicians’ staffs are uncomfortable asking patients for money. But rather than postponing payments, a patient with a $300 balance could split that up into payments of $60 a month for the next five months.
“Now the physician is capturing money that he or she may not have captured, and they’re capturing it sooner,” Labow says. “So, from a pure administrative and financial burden perspective, leaving all the flash aside, these types of tools make an enormous impact to a practice’s bottom line.”
Labow acknowledges that some physicians are still resistant to expanding online communication activities to include patients, but she points out that once they understand the return on investment that’s involved, they recognize the value.
“Once we help physician practices on the marketing side, help them understand how to get the message out to their patients so patients, too, begin to adopt [these new communication tools], that’s when [physicians] are going to see the value. It’s an education factor, and the tide is definitely changing.”