Recoup and recover

Source: NHE Sept/Oct 2018

The ease and round-the-clock nature of making cashless payments has transformed the way we pay for goods and services – and, from now on, the NHS should be no different. Stephen Sutcliffe, director of finance and accounting at NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS), discusses an innovative new payment system that is enabling trusts to recover much more of the money they are owed.

Failing to recover the cost of treating visitors from overseas is, according to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, “depriving the NHS of vital funds.” It is, says the committee, an area in which the NHS has been “chaotic.” And, from now on, it has been instructed to do better.

In the ‘Next Steps on the NHS: Five Year Forward View,’ published last year, it is noted that the National Audit Office believes “the best available estimates suggest that the NHS is recovering significantly less than it could” from non-UK residents who use the NHS. In light of this, the government has tasked the NHS with recouping more and writing off less, with the target of recovering up to £500m a year, up from £97m three years ago.

With payment mechanisms often at odds with the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week care provided by NHS hospitals, trusts up and down the country have often struggled to collect funds from overseas patients, especially once they have been discharged and return home.

If ever there was a symbol of the need for modernisation, it is the hospital cashier’s office. Typically open 9am-5pm on weekdays only, it relies on the patient to physically visit and make a payment. And, as the figures show, many don’t.

As any busy healthcare practitioner will tell you, hospital treatment certainly isn’t only required during office hours, so it makes no sense that paying for it can only take place within those times.

With this in mind, several trusts are moving with the times and introducing new, innovative payment systems. One such is University Hospital Southampton NHS FT, which was the first to pilot NHS SBS’s Income Collection Online (ICON) system.

Developed in partnership with IT specialists, ICON is a secure and integrated system that enables hospitals to take debit or credit card payments in person, online or over the telephone. And because it links directly to the trust’s finance platform, accounting and reporting processes are much more timely and accurate.

In practice, it means that collecting payments from patients is much easier and can be done at any time. Chip & pin machines can be placed at nursing stations and tablets can even be taken to the patient’s bedside – at the appropriate time – in order to complete online payments. By making it easier and providing more ways to pay – in line with what a patient is accustomed to outside of hospital – the amount of money the NHS is forced to write-off will inevitably decrease. 

With ICON, the process of receiving payments is also greatly simplified within the cashier’s office, where payments can now be easily taken online and a receipt emailed to the patient. And taking payments from patients isn’t the only area in which this technology has the potential to be transformative: NHS employees, for instance, can now pay for training or re-pay salary overpayments quickly and easily.

In addition, because the system is totally secure, it alleviates staff, internal networks and telephony systems of the burden of compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard.

Put simply, ICON enables hospital staff to request payment in a much timelier manner and means patients find making a payment is easy and hassle-free. The money that is recouped can then – as the Five Year Forward View emphasised – be reinvested where it is needed most: in frontline clinical care.


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