Using Empathy and Good Communication Skills in Patient Collections

Patients worry about the cost of healthcare – and rightfully so. Explanations of Benefits (EOBs) can be hard to decode. Layers of insurance are confusing. For our series honoring National Emotional Intelligence Awareness Month, we are sharing 7 tips on how you and your staff can ease patient anxiety by adopting communication skills that put everyone at ease.


1. Explain everything up front.


When considering a procedure with a patient, discuss the out-of-pocket cost. Clarify what insurance will (or will not) pay for. Distinguish between essential, recommended and elective services. “No surprises” is a good motto, which helps the patient make an informed decision about whether to proceed. While a test might seem necessary to you, it could be unaffordable to someone with a high deductible, resulting in stress that exacerbates their medical condition. Proactive communications demonstrate your sensitivity to the patient as a complete person.


2. Hear the emotion.


Emotional pain and physical pain are often intertwined. Someone feeling discomfort is more likely to get upset over seemingly unrelated issues. Defuse the situation by using “active listening,” a tool for giving feedback that proves you hear and understand. The trick is to articulate the emotion your patient is presenting, not the angry words on the surface. Although the underlying emotion is almost always some form of fear, try to avoid that word. No one wants to be accused cowardice. “You’re really worried about this.” “I can see how much this is bothering you.” “A billing problem is probably the last thing you need right now.” Statements like these show that you are paying attention and empathize with their distress, while still maintaining a firm professional position. When they have calmed down, you’ll be able to give rational explanations.


3. Verify disputed bills.


Patients may jump to conclusions, assuming that an error has been made on their statement. And it’s possible that they’re right. Checks and statements might have crossed in the mail. A code may have been transposed. The insurer may have changed requirements. Before discussing any issue, check for accuracy. A quick glance at Kareo will confirm the service provided, accuracy in coding, submittal status and patient balance. Having this information at your fingertips will help you explain the bill in simple language, and take speedy action if corrections need to be made.


4. Offer options.


Feeling trapped intensifies tension and panic. So, show your patient any financial alternatives they might have. If you’re still in the consultation stage, lay out the various choices available and detail comparative costs. If the procedure is already completed and insurance has reimbursed, outline any available payment plans. Could they put the bill on a credit card? Can you give a discount? Could a local charity help?


5. Be human.


It may be tempting to hand off a patient to your billing department at the first mention of a dispute. However, you’d be missing a great opportunity for building trust and strengthening your relationship. Try saying something like this instead: “I certainly hear how much this is bothering you. It bothers me too, because my primary job is to oversee your health, and I don’t want anything getting in the way of that. Let’s work together to get this resolved. I’ll investigate with our biller, and we’ll all stay updated through your patient portal. Sound good?”


6. Educate your staff.


Make sure that all staff members have a patient-centric attitude that includes emotional respect. If you have a grouchy or intimidating biller, get to the bottom of the problem before they alienate patients. Delve into every patient complaint and follow up. Set up an empathy training program to refresh skills that may have gotten rusty during the pandemic.


7. Leverage your communications platform.


When face-to-face discussions are not possible, Kareo gives you plenty of alternatives. Kareo’s telehealth module allows video conferencing, which can include a three-way with your biller. Emails through the Kareo patient portal are also a quick and easy way to stay in touch.

The bottom line is that the little things matter. The more transparent and approachable you and your team are, the stronger your patient relationships become – which ultimately leads to better outcomes.

To see how technology can help you with boosting patient engagement in your practice, visit us here.  

About the Author

Alesa Lightbourne is a prize-winning author, professor and former dean of an international business school. As a freelance writer, her clients have included Fortune...

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