Alarm bells on self-pay

By Robin Stride

Consultants are often missing out on the self-pay boom because their private hospitals have not geared themselves up to make the most of it.

alarm-bellsResearchers report a string of failures, including:

  • Complex websites that make it hard for customers to access cost information;
  • Unclear pricing structures;
  • ‘Huge’ variations in charges;
  • Phone inquiries not being answered;
  • Recorded messages not being returned.

Findings of a study for BMI Healthcare show how some operators fail to fully exploit the business opportunities available from the non-cosmetic self-pay market, valued at £700m this year.

They demonstrate how would-be patients who are researching hospital websites must often make multiple clicks to even find a price for procedures – and when they do, they are confronted with huge prices differences.


Richard Gregory

In one example shown at The Private Healthcare Summit 2018 by the group’s director of market engagement Richard Gregory, potential customers trying to navigate their way around information on hip treatments were having to make six mouse clicks to see prices.

Some figures were fixed-price, but others were just a ‘guide’ and varied from between £9,500 as a set figure to £12,500 as a guideline cost.

Mr Gregory argued that private healthcare customers in 2018 expected to be able to easily access information and services, when they wanted and through the medium of their choice, just as in the retail world.

But they were also being let down when they tried to get information from private hospitals on the phone.

BMI’s researchers phoned hospitals from different operators over an eight-week period at set times each week.

Of 160 calls:
 106 were answered, but 54 were not;
 50 calls went to voicemail, but only 19 of these messages were returned. One hospital returned none;
 Only 100 calls were answered within 30 seconds.

And when callers did manage to speak to somebody, researchers considered some of the voices at the other end were unfriendly and not informative enough.

Empathy was judged extremely poor by some callers. In one hospital, only two callers, from 14 phone calls answered, considered the person they spoke to was empathetic.

Mr Gregory described call backs as ‘a lottery’. Customers expected a personalised, quality service including the ‘soft’ elements – knowledge, reassurance, empathy, and trust. They wanted to be guided through the complexity of healthcare and a ‘wow’ factor like this was the loyalty creator for those who really wanted to grow their business.

He said the opportunity to build the self-pay sector had been aided by a fall in private medical insurance coverage and a 53% rise in the last five years in NHS treatment waiting lists. Waiting lists were growing 50% faster than the population.

But he warned the private­ conference in London that if customers could not even access an operator, then they were effectively being turned away.

He told Independent Practitioner Today: ‘I think a growth rate in the vicinity of 10% a year in self-pay is modest.

‘I would encourage consultants wanting to grow their private practice to be a little bit more consumer-savvy and look at their processes that happen before they see the patient.

‘If they are not getting the telephone service they expect, then they are going to lose out.’

In BMI’s research, ‘friendliness’ was based on the tone of voice and use of names and a welcome; informativeness on the confidence and accuracy of answers given to set questions; and empathy was judged on a subjective view of the extent of unprompted interest shown in the caller.