American Express Co. formed a business unit to focus on increasing card acceptance by health care providers.

American Express veteran Elizabeth Langwith was named general manager of the health care industries group. She reports to Kerry Hatch, general manager of American Express' new industries group.

Doctors and hospitals have accepted American Express cards for about 10 years, said Ms. Langwith, but the company's recent push into the health care arena is part of an overall strategy to increase the number of merchants that accept the American Express brand.

The greatest challenge for credit card companies trying to penetrate this market is convincing doctors and hospitals to pay the fees associated with card transactions, said James Wells, managing director of Washington- based Furash & Co.

Mr. Wells added that there is a sizable opportunity for card companies in the health care market, but that personal checks still predominate.

By one estimate, credit cards are used for only 10% of out-of-pocket payments for medical expenses.

Still, American Express maintains that health care providers are one of its fastest-growing industry segments. Similarly, Visa and MasterCard have identified health care payments as a high growth opportunity and during the past couple years have developed programs to increase acceptance and usage.

American Express' overall charge volume in this area increased 26% in 1995 from 1994, and the number of providers accepting the American Express card increased 24% during the same period.

Independent sales agents, which Ms. Langwith described as the company's "key" to entering this market, are helping American Express sign up new providers. In addition, American Express plans to sponsor and attend various trade shows to gain more exposure in the medical community.

Ms. Langwith declined to provide specific examples of events American Express may support.

According to consumer surveys conducted by American Express, cardholders are paying for medical services more frequently with the American Express charge card than the Optima credit card.

"Our research shows that people do not like to revolve their health care charges," said Ms. Langwith.

This likely reflects the fact that American Express' clientele is mostly affluent, she said, and can afford to pay their bills in full each month.

Most recently, Ms. Langwith, 34, was the director and assistant to American Express' president of merchant acceptance worldwide.

She was also a senior manager in the corporate purchasing card division from 1992 to 1994.

Ms. Langwith joined the company in 1990 as a manager in the retail industry marketing group.

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