Empathy... Technology in Healthcare Eligibility is Overshadowing It

Last year I met a family who came to our client’s hospital in need of help in better understanding how to pay for their care. The patient, happily married with children, was recently diagnosed with multiple chronic health issues. So we sat down and discussed their situation and concerns. As it turned out, they qualified for Medicaid. It was an emotionally difficult time amplified by the stress of not knowing how they would pay for the care the patient needed. That's why it's so important for us to be good listeners, invest the time to walk them through the application process, and make ourselves available for follow up questions and concerns.

Fast forward about a year. The patient's spouse had healthcare needs and returned to the hospital.  The spouse asked to speak with me. As we reconnected, I was saddened to learn that the patient had recently passed away. The patient’s spouse was understandably distraught and sad. The patient’s spouse described it as being "overwhelmed". Once again, emotions were negatively amplified due to confusion about options in paying for care. Further complicating things from the spouse’s perspective was that their financial situation had changed since we last met. Because the patient eventually qualified for disability payments before passing away, they no longer qualified for Medicaid. They had to purchase insurance through the market. Since the patient had now passed away, the disability payments ended. The spouse didn't know how that event would impact insurance options. The spouse did however know that the open market plan was now simply unaffordable. Fortunately, we were able to lend an empathetic ear and hand in getting the spouse back on Medicaid. Visibly relieved and verbally grateful for the help getting through the whole process, I was touched to have been able to help the family again during such a stressful time.

The story you just read was recently shared by an eligibility services team member serving onsite for one of our hospital customers. So why am I sharing it with you? Because with all the focus and energy invested in new technology today, I believe one critical priority is too often forgotten in the broader healthcare eligibility market... empathy.

Yes technology is critically important in educating members of our community in the value of being proactive with their healthcare... physically and fiscally. There are innovative technologies being developed across the industry to improve eligibility and revenue cycle management. It's happening right here in my company. There are app and analytic advancements designed for hospital teams to reach patients before they become acutely ill, and reach them where they like to spend time (not in a hospital). And while this story has a positive outcome with respect to the financial experience, we all need to engage members of the community sooner and better. But hyper-focusing on technology often creates an imbalance in the execution of that, further complicating an already complex healthcare financial experience.

So what core principles can we embrace in creating and leveraging the right technology to support an empathetic patient financial experience?

  1. View the world through the lens of the patient when evaluating and using technology. As if there aren't already enough variables when it comes to people, their behavior changes depending on the situation. People in good health behave differently than they do when in poor health. The behavior of influential loved ones also varies. All this variability means it'simportant to get a handle on what people value and why they value it. Get members of the community involved early in any change in technology or process. Make them part of a pilot. Also, balance their feedback with respect to your resource bandwidth and the needs of your team.  Use that feedback to calibrate the broader launch. It's very easy for healthcare leaders to be lured by the shiny factor of new technology. If you are a leader, ensure you have a truly objective evaluation model. If you influence leaders, provide ideas for objectivity. 
  2. Remember, technology is a tool you use to get results. Positive results are always the priority. Even with extensive artificial intelligence built in, technology usually requires a human to use it. A strategy consultant once shared this with me, "I can give someone a hammer. That doesn't make them a carpenter." Good point and relevant here. Part of evaluating and using technology as a tool is understanding the level of ability and motivation the user has in actually using it. From there, features can be validated, improved, or excluded. Also, we can determine how much education, training, and integration is required to close gaps. Remember, there are a variety of users including patients and hospital service team members. Some people will engage via phone, others via app, others via email, others via a combination of these technologies. Proactively connecting the dots between humans and technology will set the stage for creating an empathetic experience. It will also provide insights for using education to influence preferred behavior...like getting patients to use an app to engage around eligibility-related needs. Why? Because, when used correctly, everybody wins. Patients are less likely to pause getting care because of financial unknowns and hospitals are more likely to get properly reimbursed for services they deliver. Essentially we can use technology to help support an empathetic experience by making engagement easy, private, and flexible.
  3. Plan the work. Work the plan. So what does this have to do with leveraging technology to support an empathetic patient experience? A lot. If you don't plan for an empathetic experience, execute to it, and measure the results, you will get lost in the technology feature jungle. A few foundational principles to make your planning and execution fruitful over time:
    1. Begin your planning with discussion and documentation of priorities and KPIs. Regarding priorities, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, said it best, "If you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities." When thinking about KPIs, it's imperative to support those priorities with measurable performance indicators. While there are different KPIs that support your plan priorities, how do you measure empathetic experiences? Simple. Measure patient loyalty. And don't confuse loyalty with satisfaction. Loyalty is represented by two things: 1. If or how often people and those in their circle of influence return for service and 2. Are they willing to recommend you to others. Regarding measurable KPIs, I leave you with this insight from Galileo, "Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so."
    2. View things in 90 day increments. Too many things change from quarter to quarter to be inflexible with your planning perspective. That doesn't mean you cannot plan beyond 90 days. It does mean you need to give yourself and your team flexibility in the milestones and measures that apply beyond 90 days.
    3. Write the plan in a single page. Every page you add to your plan lowers the probability that people will use it to execute. Make sure your plan is consumable. An exception to this rule, one designed to enable multiple stakeholder scalability, is to allow each team to have their own page that supports the main strategy.

This isn't easy stuff. But it is rewarding when done right. Empathetic experiences can and must be supported by technology. Just remember to:

  1. View things through the lens of the patient.
  2. Know that technology is a tool humans use to get results.
  3. Plan the work. Work the plan.

Well that's a wrap on this perspective about using technology to support empathetic financial experiences. I look forward to your comments and perspective.  Also, I appreciate you sharing this post with others, if so compelled.


About the Author:

Randy Shafer is Division President for MedAssist, a company healthcare leaders rely on to help simplify the financial experience for patients and members of their hospital teams. He has more than 30 years experience in healthcare, specifically in eligibility services.

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