Sentara Execs Share Insights for Strong Patient Financial Engagement

Will ReillyAugust 10, 2022

The financial environment for health systems and their patients keeps getting tougher. Cascading effects of the pandemic have led to a looming recession, severe labor shortages, rising costs and shrinking margins. R1’s recent survey of CFOs and revenue cycle leaders confirmed what we have been hearing from clients – nearly half are behind on their current revenue goals. Add to that the increasing financial burden on patients. For Sentara Healthcare, the share of revenue from patient out-of-pocket costs has doubled from 10-15% to nearly 30%. When one in five U.S. adults say they would be unable to pay for needed healthcare, it’s time to make payments easier for patients.


The good news is that partnering with R1 to prioritize patient payments can be overwhelmingly positive for health systems and consumers alike. That has been the experience at Sentara, a 12-hopital system and health plan based in Norfolk, Va. In the first 90 days offering the R1 Entri™ Pay solution (known to patients as Sentara Bill Pay), they achieved substantial results:  

  • 100,000 patients quickly adopted Sentara Bill Pay and 60% are engaging regularly 
  • 11% more collected through digital payments (and growing), equating to $13-$15 million a year  
  • 39 Net Promoter Score (NPS) with continuous ongoing evaluation 


R1 had the opportunity to discuss Sentara’s successful consumer-focused, digital-first patient financial engagement strategy with three of their leaders. 



They shared perspectives from revenue cycle operations to staff experiences to consumer engagement and highlighted how their organization not only improved financial outcomes, but also dramatically improved experiences for patients and the revenue cycle staff who serve them. “The adoption of the tool and how rapidly it's been embraced,” said Schnittger, “has been really satisfying and validating.”


Prioritizing digital patient payments  

For Sentara – and for many leading health systems – patient billing is part of a portfolio of digital initiatives focused on consumers, patients and members intended to complement Sentara’s EMR. Schnittger explained, “We needed to adopt tools that would engage patients where they are to enhance the patient experience and also enhance our yield.”  


For patients able to pay amounts owed for co-pays, co-insurance and out-of-pocket charges, Sentara had historically collected about 20% of this revenue. By offering patients more self-service options, including personalized payment plans and a consolidated view for both hospital and physician charges, Sentara aims to collect more of that patient revenue, while creating a much better experience for patients.


Want to hear more from these Sentara leaders? Watch the webinar, “Sentara Patients Flock to the New Digital Bill Pay Experience,” on demand  


Convenience is key to high adoption  

Patients expect to manage a full range of tasks on their own online. Previously, patients had only one option for a payment plan – a three-month duration, regardless of the balance owed – unless they called the customer service team. Now using machine learning and proprietary propensity-to-pay algorithms, Entri VisitPay offers patients payment plans based on their specific situation, which they can then customize for three to 40 or more months with no interest. Schnittger shared her personal experience, “I set up a payment plan for my father and it was super easy. He could have done it himself without my help.” 


Another convenience is giving patients one place to go for everything they need to manage all their accounts, including hospital and physician bills and explanations of benefits. In addition, one authorized person can manage all accounts for their household or for another person in their care, such as an elderly parent.  


Encouraging engagement with thoughtful outreach 

Sentara put R1’s proven consumer adoption playbook to work. “One of the fundamental capabilities Sentara wanted,” Gwaltney said, “was to give patients only one place to go – the EMR patient portal – with a single login and a seamless experience for a variety of tasks, including paying their bills.”  


Hunnicutt added, “Another important part of our launch strategy was our soft launch to employees first. This created amazing word-of-mouth enthusiasm that spread to patients. In addition, this provided valuable feedback to incorporate into the solution as we moved forward.”  


Following the internal launch, Sentara targeted the next wave of outreach via email to patients, offering them a seamless sign-on to Sentara Bill Pay. In addition, they added promotions on billing statements, within the EMR portal and on the website. The website features a short video highlighting how easy it is to pay with Sentara Bill Pay.  


Patients are raving, and so are customer service staff 

“Patients are taking to the new experience very well and they say they’re enjoying it,” explained Hunnicutt. At the same time, although many patients prefer using digital self-service tools, others want a guided tour first. Now, when patients call in, the service staff can walk through bill payment with them, giving them confidence to adopt digital payments going forward. 


All told, call volumes are going down, and service staff appreciate being able to focus on helping patients that need more in-depth, personalized assistance. “Lately, patients are asking to speak with supervisors,” said Hunnicutt, “and we’ve received several department-wide compliments. Now we have easy finance plans and have single statements – which were our top two patient complaints – so it’s very heartwarming to hear the thank-yous for those now.”     


Sentara has achieved measurable success in a short time, both in meeting patient expectations for a contemporary digital experience and in finding efficiencies that reduce the workload for overstretched health system staff. Over 60% of all patient payments are already arriving via digital self-service – and that number is growing. In addition, collecting patient revenue continues to get easier as patients embrace self-service finance plans, having created 10,000 new plans in the first 90 days. By offering personalized digital solutions that make it easier for patients to meet their financial obligations, Sentara is closing the revenue gap. 


Learn more by watching the webinar, "Sentara Patients Flock to the New Digital Bill Pay Experience," on demand.

Author Bio: Will Reilly is a Vice President of Marketing for R1 RCM. Previously, he was the Chief Marketing Officer for VisitPay, which was acquired by R1 in 2021.