A reader recently told me about an unfortunate health care experience that started last February when she fell on ice and broke her elbow, which then dragged on until just a couple of weeks ago. Experiences like hers are all too common, she claimed, and she ought to know; she holds a management position in a hospital in the Midwest.
Here’s her story:
The woman fell on her way home from work during a winter storm. She was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital — not the one for which she works. The injury received appropriate, routine treatment, but tests discovered an irregular heartbeat, and she was kept overnight. After physicians concluded that nothing was seriously wrong, she was released the following afternoon.
Her elbow healed according to plan and within a couple of months, she was back to normal.
Then, in late September she received a letter from the hospital informing her that a debt collection agency would be contacting her about unpaid charges. The charges were in the thousands of dollars.
In a panic, she called her insurance company, which called the hospital. Turns out the hospital had billed her for a visit from an out-of-network physician she had not requested and did not remember seeing. And, it had billed the visit as “outpatient” even though the consultation took place while she was hooked up to an IV overnight in an inpatient bed in the hospital room.
The insurance company assured her that she owed nothing. She said she then emailed the hospital’s public relations office to offer some “friendly advice from one hospital professional to another”: The organization had better clean up its act before word hit the streets about its sloppy — and bullying — business practices. She received no response.
This story comes on the heels of one I heard from another reader who also works in a hospital. The other day, he received a notice from a collection agency for $10.50 he wasn’t aware he owed for a hospital stay last spring. He sent in a check along with a vow that from here on, he would boycott the hospital and advise family and friends to do the same.
Health care has now entered the age of the consumer, whether hospital leaders or physicians want to accept the fact or not. Individuals have a lot more skin in the game, courtesy of high-premium, high-deductible plans. Practical information about cost and quality is becoming easier to find every day, and polls show that people are getting used to the idea of shopping around for care in the same way they shop for other services.
It’s not all about cost. How quickly can they get an appointment? How long are wait times? How cordial are your clinical and business staff? How easy are your bills to decipher?
All of which is particularly true for impatient Gen Xers and millennials, who flatly refuse to put up with lapses in service the way we baby boomers have tended to do.
Massachusetts recently became the first state to require insurers to post prices for tests, treatments and even surgeries on their websites. The information itself and the way it’s presented need to be massaged, but, no doubt, this will become the norm, whether driven by government fiat or the demands of the market. And Yelp- and Angie’s List-style websites are popping up all over the place, where people can declare to the world how wonderful or awful their personal experiences were with a particular health care provider.
”Customer service.” “Consumer friendly.” “Simplified billing.” “Price transparency.” “Bang for the buck.” These phrases are common in the business world at large. They’ve largely been missing in conversations about health care. It’s time we all get familiar with them.