Healthcare can take a lesson from airline fees

Here’s an idea so radically simple, it just might work.

All the new fees airlines have imposed in the last few years seem to be as popular as a trip to the doctor. But healthcare should follow at least one example to make trips to the doctor a bit more palatable–and safer, too. Plus, practices can benefit from greater efficiency if not also a little extra revenue.

When booking a ticket, airlines now charge somewhere in the range of $15-$25 to speak to a live person, either on the phone or at the airport. That’s because they want you to use their automated, online reservation systems. Customers generally don’t mind doing the work because they get to pick the flights, routings, times and prices most suited to their own needs and they enter all their personal data themselves. It’s more accurate and it saves time and money for the airlines. If customers want the added assistance of a real human being, they can pay for the service.

A medical practice should operate the same way. Let patients book appointments online. Let them fill out their medical histories online, too. Link the data they enter to practice systems so appointments go right to the practice management system and patient history goes to the EMR that most physicians will have (right?) by 2015 or so. You save staff time–even some physician time in the case of medical histories–and avoid errors that come from having to interpret patient handwriting and key their information into the system.

Give patients a financial incentive to use these automated options. Some practices already charge administrative fees to handle the paperwork our inefficient health system often requires. Waive those fees for anyone willing to enter data online rather than making an appointment over the phone or filling out the dreaded clipboard while sitting in the waiting room.

If you’re not comfortable charging an administrative fee, consider waiving co-payments for patients choosing the self-service option. Many of those charges go uncollected anyway.