A Physician’s Ethical Duty To Enable Simple Bill Payment

Because the Hippocratic Oath requires medical professionals to look beyond charts and infections, and treat the whole patient.

July 14, 2021
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart [or] a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.” - The Modern Hippocratic Oath.

If you’re a physician, you probably muttered these words at some point, perhaps while sweating through your cap and gown on one of the longest and happiest days of your life. Maybe you were still exhausted from finals, or maybe your mind was occupied with the excitement of finally getting the job that you’d always dreamed of. Regardless of what was going through your mind, you likely spent a few minutes reciting the Hippocratic Oath in unison with your classmates.

Interestingly, in modern times physicians take the Oath at the end of medical school, but when physicians first began reciting the Oath millennia ago, it was purposefully done at the beginning of their medical training. At this time, there began to be a divide among the practitioners of medicine, between those who saw medicine as a profession and those who saw it as a trade. The tradesmen sought riches, and the purpose behind their practice was personal gain. Meanwhile, the physicians sought a higher purpose–to serve the best interests of their patients. They began reciting the oath as a means to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In recent times, things have changed a bit. Corporate healthcare and insurance providers have invaded the medical profession, and excessively high student loan debts weigh heavy on the backs of medical school graduates. The profession that physicians of ancient Greece were determined to keep from becoming a trade has slowly shifted closer and closer to becoming just that.

And while it would be unfair to place the blame for this shift on the exhausted doctors struggling to build their practices and escape the burden of student loan debt after spending nearly a decade in school, it seems that one small solution is clearly within their grasp.

But before we dig into the solution, let’s discuss the problem.

The Problem

Have you ever looked into the eyes of someone who doesn’t know how they’re going to pay their rent? Or have you ever listened to the cries of a friend who can’t afford to buy their kids any presents for Christmas? Besides just being absolutely heartbreaking, at that moment, it’s clear that financial tribulation affects far more than just that person’s wallet–it has a very real and tangible effect on their health.

And there is no shortage of research backing this fact up. It turns out, financial stress is affecting people’s health in a myriad of ways. The effects range from 56% of U.S. adults losing sleep over their finances to 27% of people with high debt stress suffering from ulcers or digestive-tract problems compared to only 8% in people with low debt stress. Financial stress, unsurprisingly, also takes a significant toll on individuals’ mental health, as debt has been connected to higher rates of mental health struggles, including anxiety and depression. These effects culminate in a devastating fact: when people are stressed about their financial situation, they are inclined to skip appointments. According to a 2020 nationwide survey conducted by Bankrate, 32% of Americans reported that someone in their household decided against seeking medical care due to cost. It appears that at the end of the day, financial stress is a massive obstacle to most Americans’ pursuit of health and wellness.

Still, how is that your problem? Doctors spend years in school, racking up mountains of student loans, and they have bills to pay too! They no doubt make up some portion of the group of Americans that are suffering from financial pressure. What can they do about this pervasive problem?

The Solution

The solution is simpler than one might guess. It’s not lowering prices or giving away services for free. Doctors are medical experts who have spent years and often decades training to treat their patients; they deserve to be justly compensated. However, the means of collecting that compensation could be adjusted slightly, resulting in more healthy patients and more happy doctors.

The medical bill collection process, as it currently stands, is more similar to a game of Battleship than a cooperative debt collection procedure. After dealing with increasingly frustrating insurance providers, doctors’ offices must then seek the balance of the bill directly from their patients, a task that has proven to be exceptionally difficult. A 2017 survey revealed that in 83% of doctors’ offices with less than five physicians, the top challenge for payment collection was slow payment by patients with high-deductible insurance plans. But collection isn’t the only problem, as 81% of those same offices said that the next biggest challenge was simply communicating patient payment accountability. This process is a mess of envelopes, phone calls, and ultimately, collection agencies. And it’s a mess for both the patients and the doctors. Doctors often never see payment for the treatment delivered, and patients end up in emotional turmoil due to being harassed by a collection agency and the subsequent ding on their credit report.

So, what can doctors do?

Return to the above-mentioned phrase from the Hippocratic Oath, and pay particular attention to the words, “My responsibility includes these related problems.” Which related problems? Oh yeah, economic stability.

Suppose physicians can take a step back from the hustle and bustle of dealing with the unfortunately necessary tradesmen-like aspects of the medical profession. In that case, it is possible that a solution can be found in attempting to treat the whole patient, including their economic stability.

If doctors can work more closely with patients on (1) identifying the pros and cons of different treatments, (2) developing easy-to-access payment plans, and (3) staying current on their medical bills, they can help usher in a new era of doctors who push back against the tradesmen and remember their ancient roots, as physicians belonging to a profession whose most important purpose is to serve the best interests of their patients.

If you're interested in implementing payment plans for your patients, schedule a demo to find out how Peachy can help!

Appendix
Published on: 
July 14, 2021

Note: This is not to be taken as tax, legal, benefits, health or financial advice. Since rules and regulations change over time and can vary by location, consult a lawyer or financial expert for specific guidance.

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