When patients seek medical care, good physicians have good outcomes in mind. When it comes to a serious illness like cancer, the goal is to raise the quality of life, even when the situation is very bleak. But there’s one major side effect of this high level of care that can diminish the good that was accomplished: financial distress. Some research has been done on the effect of these high bills, and it shows why it’s important to talk costs with patients.

The long-term effects of financial distress
It’s been well-established that medical care can strain patients’ budgets and resources, even when they are covered by health insurance. But one recently published research letter looked at the effects of these costs on the lives of cancer patients.

“Owing to cost sharing, even insured patients face financial burden and are at risk for worsened quality of life and increased mortality,” says the letter, published Aug. 10 in JAMA Oncology.

Two-fifths of cancer patients who took part in the survey faced higher than expected costs, even when they did have health insurance. Those high costs were associated with “high or overwhelming financial distress.” Another finding was that patients who had more unexpected costs were less willing to pay for care. That could lead to outcomes such as non-payment as well as patients opting out of treatment.

Another 2014 study in the Journal of Oncology Practice found that patients who had trouble meeting their medical expenses were less likely to adhere to the treatment plan. These patients skipped medication refills and treatments to save money.

Treating the problem
The JAMA letter talks about the necessity of discussing costs with patients at the forefront to keep them on their treatment plan despite the costs. Another recent study suggests doing so can lead to better patient outcomes. This study analyzed doctor-patient discussions of breast cancer treatment plans, finding that cost came up less than one-quarter of the time. When cost did get discussed, oncologists were far more likely than patients to bring it up, 59 percent of the time.

Even a 30-second discussion led to lower patient costs. The oncologist was able to find better ways to save money for the patient without interfering with treatment. They were able to find solutions such as cheaper medications, different dosages, free samples and corralling tests within the same deductible year.

Start having the talk
Medical care can literally rewrite a person’s history. But then, so can a major debt. Consider the financial impact on the patient as one outcome of care and it becomes pretty clear it’s just as important to talk costs as it is to talk about side effects and benefits.

Take a look at what some medical care providers are doing to communicate more clearly with patients about their financial responsibility. And choose your collection partner wisely. An ethical partner can help you resolve outstanding accounts in a way that preserves doctor-patient relationships.


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