A stethoscope, pen, and calculator on top of a medical bill.

Image source: Getty Images.

While it doesn't influence our opinions of products, we may receive compensation from partners whose offers appear here. We're on your side, always. See our full advertiser disclosure here.

For far too many Americans, getting sick means borrowing money. In fact, The Ascent's recent research revealed that a whopping 16% of all Americans have medical debt in collections. That amounts to more than 52 million people whose creditors are trying to recover past-due payments. 

Having debt in collections can damage your credit score and affect your ability to borrow. It can also leave you with a burdensome monthly obligation if you're aiming to pay off what you owe. If you're one of the millions of Americans in this difficult situation, here are some steps you may want to consider taking. 

1. Ask for help ASAP

It's far easier to find a solution to medical debt before you're behind on payments. If you think you'll struggle to pay healthcare costs, talk with your provider and see if they can offer less expensive options or suggest other ways of keeping costs down. If you know you're going to miss a payment, reach out to your creditors before you fall behind. 

By being proactive, you should be able to avoid damaging your credit score with a record of late payments -- and your provider or creditor may be much more willing to work with you since you aren't already in default of your agreement to cover the costs. 

2. Negotiate down the price of procedures 

It's very common for care providers to bill huge sums for procedures, as these high prices are used as leverage to negotiate with insurers. Insurance companies generally don't pay this inflated sticker price, as they have negotiated rates -- but you'll get stuck with paying it if you don't have coverage and you don't speak up. 

When you're charged for medical services, do some research to find out what Medicare or private insurers would pay for the same treatment. Then call your provider and ask for that discounted rate. You may also be able to negotiate an all-cash discount before getting services, if you have the time and ability to ask. 

3. Work out a payment plan

If you can't make payments for your medical services on the current schedule your provider or creditor has proposed, talk with them about working out a different payment plan. Most often, they'd rather get paid a smaller amount over a longer time than risk you defaulting on the loan entirely, so there is a very good chance they'll be willing to work with you. 

4. Refinance your debt 

If you're being charged a lot of interest for your medical debt, you may be able to reduce the rate you're paying by refinancing. 

You could, for example, secure a low-interest personal loan to pay off some of your existing debt. Or you could perhaps even use a balance transfer credit card, as some cards that offer 0% promotional rates will send you balance transfer checks you can use to pay off other kinds of debt (such as medical bills). These aren't to be confused with cash advance checks, though, and you'll want to make sure you know the interest rate and fees up front before taking this approach. 

If you're able to reduce the rate of interest you pay, you'll make payoff a lot cheaper and easier. Refinancing can also often lower your monthly payment, which reduces the risk of defaulting by making it more affordable. 

5. Negotiate a settlement with your creditors 

As a last resort, you can offer to settle your medical debt for a lump-sum payment that's below what you owe. This can often do damage to your credit score -- but you may be able to negotiate to have your account listed as paid in full in exchange for your payment. 

Usually, settling medical debt won't be an option until you're already behind on payments, which is damaging to your credit in and of itself. It's best not to let things get to this point if you don't have to, but it can be a good option if you have debt you really can't pay and you no longer want the bills hanging over your head. Just make sure you get any agreement in writing before you make your payment.

By trying out these five steps, hopefully you'll find a solution that works for you if you're one of the millions of Americans with unpaid medical bills.