A convenient truth: Self-service works in healthcare

By Jim Dowling
07:56 AM

Through the course of my work, I speak with many healthcare executives and common concerns emerge from almost every conversation. Healthcare executives across the board lament the changes in reimbursement that are forcing them to find ways to collect payments earlier in the revenue cycle. The second centers on their facilities’ Press Ganey patient satisfaction scores and how to maintain or improve them.

My advice to these executives? The solution to both challenges lies in a “patient centric” technology strategy. By taking a comprehensive and integrated approach to self-service, hospitals can not only enhance the patient experience and build patient loyalty, but also improve their organization’s efficiency and bottom line at the same time. Patients really just want to see the doctor or have the needed procedure done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Patients don’t mind filling out forms in advance and they don’t mind being told that they will own X dollars for the visit, as long as it is done in advance when it is convenient for them. 

Self-service: Not just for retail

Think about it: Choice and convenience are competitive differentiators for today’s busy consumers—in all aspects of their lives. Whether it is self-checkout at the grocery store, paying a bill from a laptop in their living room, or depositing a check through an app on their smartphones, consumers gravitate toward businesses that let them complete tasks rapidly and easily, at their own convenience. And that’s quickly becoming true in healthcare, where patients are asking providers to provide self-service options for transacting such healthcare-related tasks as scheduling appointments, paying bills and filling out or updating forms.

Benefits to patients: One of the biggest misconceptions about self-service technology I see among healthcare executives is that if it’s deployed, patients won’t use it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Surveys by Gartner and other firms show that consumers strongly desire access to self-service options in healthcare. Moreover, some of these studies say the top pain point among patients is hassling with paper forms and having to answer the same questions repeatedly, along with not having 24/7 access to health information online.

By enabling patients to take control over some aspects of their healthcare, self-service technology can help healthcare organizations give patients a technology experience they expect, which can bolster patient satisfaction scores. Simply making it more convenient for patients to get in and do the things they need to do can go a long way toward keeping providers’ satisfaction scores high.

Benefits to staffing and workflow: Self-service technology also improves the provider side of the healthcare relationship. Among the most significant benefits is that it allows staff to manage the exceptions, not the norms, as it enables hospital employees—like registration staff—to do away with checking in each patient individually, and instead focus on those requiring more assistance. Let me provide an example. Depending on the rules built into self-service check-in kiosks, a patient can be sent directly to her appointment, or be routed to a registrar to discuss an outstanding balance that exceeds a certain amount. This smart use of the technology has benefitted many healthcare organizations. In fact, one large Jacksonville, Fla.-based health system has offloaded 52 percent of patient check-ins to automated check-in devices, which has freed staff to greet patients and focus attention on more complicated questions, thereby enhancing the patient experience.

Benefits to the bottom line: Traditional revenue cycles are not designed for today’s changing financial landscape. By pushing payment collection closer to the front of the revenue cycle, self-service solutions also can generate significant return-on-investment. A facility that uses a point of service device such as a smartphone app, tablet, online web portal or kiosk, smartphone app, or online web portal to collect a patient co-payment, for example, amasses co-payments at a significantly higher percentage of the time than does a facility that relies solely on traditional methods. For example, in just 15 months, a children’s hospital in the Midwest collected $1.3 million from 15 self-service kiosks installed in its lobby, which helped to enhance the hospital’s revenue cycle and improve the bottom line.

Self-service: Where and how to begin

With today’s product suites, hospitals take several approaches to deploying self-service technology: they can begin implementation with mobile apps and/or web portals and then expand to kiosks. Or, they can start with kiosks and move to web portals and/or mobile apps. Regardless of where a facility opts to begin, there’s always room for expansion. As there’s no one “one-size-fits-all” solution for every hospital or situation, I’ve outlined a few guiding principles below.

Go for full integration capability: Hospitals should look to employ open-standards technologies that can be fully integrated with other solutions to prevent key information from becoming siloed. One large practice in Chicago provides a great example for this point. The organization consists of an outpatient clinic, served by one vendor’s electronic health record (EHR) system and a separate inpatient clinic, which works off of another vendor’s EHR. Essentially, before deploying a self-service strategy, the two systems didn’t communicate. Today, the practice’s self-service kiosks serve as a “digital front door,” enabling patients on the outpatient side, for example, to check in for appointments on the outpatient and inpatient side. If a patient happens to be transferred to the inpatient side from an outpatient appointment, his information seamlessly follows him without having to be re-entered at the second facility.

Go active, not passive: To maximize patient engagement, hospitals should opt for deploying “consumable” self-service technology permitting patients to interact with the healthcare system in a meaningful and relevant way. Mobile apps are a great example of this, as many are currently passive tools providing patients with little more than basic contact information. Instead, the most effective apps enable patients to schedule appointments, pay bills and complete other tasks from a variety of platforms at their convenience. Such apps are “consumable” in the sense that they can consume and act on content provided by the patient, or can be consumed and deployed by the system’s infrastructure. Net-net, hospitals should mirror this approach when looking to actively engage patients.

Go with compliance: If executives are looking to deploy self-service solutions, they should be sure that they are compliant with applicable state and federal regulations. If collecting credit card payments is part of the plan, for example, make sure your technology is certified payment card industry (PCI)-compliant.

Self-service: A must in today’s healthcare environment

Today’s providers have to connect with patients when and where it’s convenient for the patients, whether it’s on a smartphone at 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon at Starbucks, or on a tablet at 8 o’clock Saturday morning at the dining room table. Keeping patients engaged is vital for providers because that’s where the money is—a $1,400 payment six months after the service is rendered is not $1,400. Not only can self-service technology provide a huge financial payoff for hospitals, but it can also improve Press Ganey scores. In my line of work, I’ve found that when hospitals take the right approach to rolling out self-service technology, their executives tend to sleep a bit better at night as well.