How to Fix ‘Surprise Billing’ Before It’s Damaging Your Brand

The issue of “surprise billing” may not seem central to your responsibilities in the marketing department, but it could be seriously damaging your brand, especially with patients of healthcare organizations.

damaging your brand

Life is full of surprises,” as the expression goes; often said to someone who was caught off-guard.

Hopefully, it was a good surprise, but sometimes it’s a real brand-killer. The issue of “surprise billing” may not seem central to your responsibilities in the marketing department, but it could be seriously damaging your brand, especially with patients of healthcare organizations.

For instance, surprise billing occurs when a patient goes to an in-network hospital, but is seen by an out-of-network provider. Most often, this occurs in the emergency department, radiology or anesthesia — because hospitals often contract out those functions to third-party companies without requiring them to take the same insurance as your facility. But everywhere your patient looks, there’s your brand. Once the out-of-network provider delivers care, it generates a bill to the patient at higher rates. The patient’s insurance company may only cover what it deems to be “reasonable and customary charges,” leaving the patient to pay off the balance. Surprise!

What ‘Surprise Billing’ Does to Your Brand

We know from multiple studies that many households live paycheck-to-paycheck, despite external appearances that suggest they are well-off. A Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study found that only 47% of households would immediately be able to pay an unexpected medical bill of $500.

Some patients fight back, but others will either try to pay it off with great difficulty or allow the bill to go to collections. In either scenario, that person has not only lost trust in your brand; they are likely to be vocal about it. This damage occurs under the radar of most marketers, who are focused on new patient acquisition.

The March issue of Health Affairs points to the impact of surprise billing on hospital choice. It examined medical claims from obstetric patients who had two deliveries between 2007 and 2014 and employer-based insurance. The authors conclude, “women who got a surprise bill from their first delivery where 13% more likely to change hospitals for the next one.” And it adds, “… in many cases, women used the information they got from their first experience to make more cost-effective decisions the next time around.”

This impact on hospital choice — from the original patient, as well as those they tell about their experience — strikes right at the core of your brand. And that’s what makes an inquiry from the marketing function entirely appropriate.

What Marketers Can Do to Prevent Surprise Billing

Does your facility use third-party companies to provide or supplement providers in emergency, radiology, anesthesia or other services? Does your agreement with those firms require them to accept the same insurance as your facility? If not, how does your facility alert patients that a provider might not be in their insurance network?

Once you know the answers, your skills are well-suited to developing a communications strategy that advises patients on how to minimize the risk of being seen by an out-of-network provider. Better yet, work with the patient experience team and your contracting group to bring those providers in-network.

That way, more of the surprises your facility provides are ones that are for your brand.

Author: Michael Crawford

Michael Crawford became interested in healthcare listening to the conversations around the patio table as his parents and their colleagues talked about work. For the past 30 years he's used his marketing expertise to help medical groups, hospitals and health systems connect with consumers, physicians, employers, brokers and health plans. He advocates for a strategic approach to marketing, audience-based communications, coordination between marketing and customer service functions, and early inclusion of the marketing discipline when planning services. His work has earned more than a dozen awards over the past few years. He’s no stranger to healthcare reorganizations or healthcare reform, from the failed effort during the 90s to the implementation of the ACA to today’s efforts at repeal. His blog, Healthcare Marketing Survival Guide, offers advice for B2C and B2B healthcare marketers trying to chart their course during uncertain times. Connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @health_crawford.

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