How to Compete in a Consumer-First Environment

December 18, 2018

Today’s consumers are more demanding than ever, but it isn’t hard to help them feel more comfortable.

As the old adage goes, “the customer is king.” Traditionally, it’s a statement applied to business, mainly the service industry. But, as radiology has become increasingly commoditized, it’s a motto that is also becoming more applicable to your daily work.

That means that you’re not only required to provide a high level of quality patient care, but you’re also expected to do so in a way that caters to your patient’s preferences and needs. Reaching this goal can be challenging, but if you want to remain competitive, capturing as many reimbursement dollars as you can, industry leaders say you should find a way to implement a patient-driven work model.

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“It’s important because patients are being pushed by insurance companies to shop around. As they do that, they’re learning where they can get cheaper services,” says Sandy Coffta, vice president for client services at Healthcare Administrative Partners. “Practices need to make sure they’re keeping up and offering not only the right prices, but other improvements that matter to patients.”

The question, though, is how to do it effectively. As it turns out, there are several straight-forward tactics you can employ to keep you a top choice among patients.

Price

As Coffta says, price is often the most important aspect of choosing a radiology practice for many patients. But, competing on price doesn’t mean you can simply advertise your fees for an MRI or CT on a billboard. You should offer patients information within the context of their insurance coverage, working closely with insurance companies to determine what patients’ differing financial responsibilities will be.

“It’s helpful to know your payer representatives, particularly for your top three, and check in with them periodically,” she says. “They can tell you where you are compared to your peers, what you need to know, and if there are any changes coming you need to be aware of.”

Give your patients a reference sheet that outlines what tier coverage you fall into for most insurance companies. At a glance, they will know approximately what their final bill will be.

Coffta also recommends searching insurance payer websites to gather information about your competitor’s prices, as well. If that data reveals your pricing is to high, you can negotiate with the payer to restructure your reimbursement and lower your fees. Remember, attracting more patient volume could mean lowering your reimbursement, so do the math on what will work best for your bottom line before making any changes.

Financial counseling

There’s more financial service to provide, though, after you’ve won a patient’s business.

Consider hiring someone to talk with patients who might have more significant financial responsibilities in paying for your rendered services, Coffta says. He or she can give patients more precise explanations about their insurance benefits, their cost estimate, and whether they’ve met their deductible. Additionally, this staffer can help patients establish realistic payment plans, if necessary.

Having these conversations early can help you side-step any patient frustrations.

“Patients are far more receptive and happier with your office if they’ve had a thorough discussion of the finances before having any service completed,” she says. “Surprise bills aren’t your friend.”

See your patients

Historically, radiologists have provided care from the reading room. But, as healthcare moves from a volume-to-value format, making yourself available to talk with patients about their studies will bolster their appreciation for what you do.

“For so long, we’ve abdicated the responsibility of talking with our patients to our technologists or the ordering physicians,” says Alexander Towbin, MD, chair of radiology informatics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “It might not be feasible to talk with all our patients, but there are good instances where we should-particularly in cases where we have difficult news to deliver.”

In fact, he says, his office created a protocol where radiologists deliver these types of results (such as a new cancer or a treatment plan change) and then immediately contact the patient’s oncologist or other provider to launch a discussion of next steps.

Simplify your report

While the ordering physician is the ultimate customer for your final report, a growing number of patients want access to it. Creating a more patient-friendly report could earn you repeat business because patients will know you explain your work, says Towbin, who has written about consumer-driven radiology and discussed the topic at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting.

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Doing it well is tricky, though, he says. Reports include medical terms that carry specific meanings that directly impact downstream care. Be careful you don’t change your implications when you write a patient-accessible report. Flesh out the report by including key images with arrows that point to specific findings and adding hyperlinks in the text to take patients to medical definitions and detailed explanations of syndromes or abnormalities, he says. It all provides context to help patients understand the results.

Augment your online presence

Make your website as informational and patient-friendly as possible, Coffta says. Include a clearly-labeled section on which insurance plans you accept, possibly posting the reference sheet with your detailed tier-coverage here.

Answer your patient’s transportation questions, too. If you’re in an urban area, outline which bus or mass transit lines are closest to your office. Let your patients know if you have free parking or where they can find it nearby.

“Patients are looking for close and convenient, and they want as little hassle as possible,” she says. “Do whatever you can to show you’re an easy place to access.”

Digital accessibility

If your office is set up for it, consider offering online appointment scheduling through your patient portal, Towbin says. Not only can patients make appointments at their convenience, but they can also choose the time that works best for them from all available options.

Additionally, clearly display your wait times so patients automatically know whether you’re on schedule or if you’re delayed.

Creature comforts

In many instances, fulfilling your patients’ needs can be as simple as making them feel at ease, Coffta says. Your study rooms might be slightly chilly and clinical, but your waiting room doesn’t have to be. Design a welcoming, well-lit, friendly space for your patients to relax while they wait for their appointment. For example, if you’re a mammography office, provide warm blankets for your patients as they wait in their gowns.

“Little touches make your patients feel cared about,” she says.

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Consider hiring a patient or family advocate, as well, Towbin says. This individual can work in the waiting room, answering patient questions or identifying and addressing any problems in real time. Having someone like this in place can prevent larger issues or frustrations from arising, he says.

Ultimately, you aren’t expected to implement every patient-driven strategy, Coffta says, but don’t fall behind the pack in striving to meet patient needs or desires. You don’t want to play catch-up.

“Practices that don’t concentrate on what their patients want will likely see a slow erosion of their patient base depending upon how many competitors are in their area,” she says. “If you sit still, it gives everyone a chance to get ahead of you. It’s easier if you get at the front of the pack and make consistent efforts to stay there.”