ALBANY -- It was determined that patients seeking care at Palmyra Medical Center needed a resource for answering questions regarding health care benefits.
Since then, the hospital's staff has been determined to add a personal touch to the process.
Previously, questions regarding insurance coverage were provided by the hospital's business operations office. Afterward, the business office was centralized with these services included in the package. In effect, residents in Southwest Georgia were having to seek answers from someone several hundred miles away.
"In a small community like Albany, residents don't want to call someone 500 miles away to get an answer," said Margaret Windham, director of community services at Palmyra. "As calls continued to come in, we changed the format."
The job of the community service department is to give patients a broad picture of what it takes to complete a visit from a financial standpoint. That way, there are no surprises down the road.
"A big piece of what we do in this department is provide patients a choice in where they want their health care services," Windham said. "It takes a lot of anxiety and worry out of (the hospital visit).
"A key in them having a smooth visit is knowing what to expect. It's a big financial burden. It's just about taking the extra time to explain things to people."
The answers to questions pertaining to what procedures can be performed at the hospital and done on certain insurance plans can make a big difference to a number of people, ranging from the new resident in town to the company that may have a hard time explaining it to their employees.
In order to perform this job, Windham has taken training in dealing with insurance companies. She has sometimes found herself working with an attorney on a patient's behalf.
"After all the years of fighting with insurance companies, you learn how to handle it," she said.
A big part of her job, though, is review and research.
"A lot of it involves research to resolve people's problems," Windham said. "I don't want people to pay more than they have to.
"I might not have all the answers, but I can get the questions to those that have the answers."
The work handled by the three people in Windham's department is done on a case-by-case basis to ensure patients get the personal attention they need.
And also because every situation is different.
"We want to do more than the basic minimum. We don't want patients to be penalized for coming here," she said. "Sometimes you have patients that don't have a choice."
There are numerous calls that come into Windham's office on a daily basis. Typically, they include questions such as "I need a procedure, will my insurance pay for this?" or "I have such-and-such service, can I come to Palmyra?"
The concept of the personal touch is something Palmyra officials are very proud of.
"With our community, one of the things Palmyra takes pride in is giving attention to patients when they need answers," Windham said. "We wanted to continue to provide that. I would not send the patient to a business office in Atlanta; I couldn't do that."
The dedication to providing the service in this way allows Palmyra to function efficiently, officials say.
"If you are going to survive, you've got to give that personal attention those in a small community want," Windham said. "That's how we feel about it.
"When you are offering a choice to use your facility, it goes without saying it helps the overall function of the hospital."
Windham's department is a resource that has sometimes been used by the doctors themselves.
"I've told patients I want them to go where they're comfortable and where their doctor is comfortable," she said.
Doing this job is a big task, so big that it's almost impossible to gauge how many phone calls are processed in the department in one day.
"There are some afternoons when I would be ready to go home and I'd say, 'What did I do today'?" Windham said.
Even so, this is a job she said is well worth doing, despite the time and effort it takes.
"Medical care is more than just a medical service, it's a financial issue," Windham said. "This touches so many people in the community. A part of healing is a positive frame of mind. How would you feel if there was nobody there to help you?
"I believe in what I do; I believe it's important. I'm grateful I'm allowed to provide this service. We want patients to know they have someone to come to."
The value of the service has not gone unnoticed by the rest of Palmyra's staff.
"We hear from patients all the time who want to use Palmyra, and we do all we can to honor their wishes. This service offers the public the option to choose the hospital they prefer without any additional out-of-network costs," said Karen Hayes, the hospital's chief financial officer. "We believe allowing patients a choice results in better outcomes and much higher patient satisfaction."
Adding the personal touch to the concept of customer service is something that applies to every department in the hospital. Otherwise, patients tend to be turned off to the idea of using the facility, Windham said.
"They can do a great job upstairs, but it takes everyone working together," she said. "There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that go on."