Culture change is here: People are shopping for prices in health care

Asking doctor about price

The paradigm has changed. People are looking for price information for health care, and they’re not afraid to say it.

I got a call the other day from a research team paid by a big organization to do research. They  were seeking information about cost transparency — whether consumers are actually using health-cost information, and how they are using it.

Their beginning assumptions were that few people — only “early adopters” — were interested in health-cost information. They have done some work in this area before, and hoped to do this study as a baseline inquiry, and to re-do it in a few years when, presumably, more people were using health-cost information.

I told them that we are getting tens of thousands of visitors every month.

I told them that in no way is the use of comparative health-cost information something restricted only to “early adopters.”

I told them what we have learned: of the woman who called with children crying in the background to ask for help in finding an inexpensive MRI so she could return to work.

I told them that when some people first see the site they say things like “Oh, my God, are you serious? Is this for real? Can I send it to my mom?”

I told the researchers that often people view the world through their own prism — fairly well-insured, and thus insulated from the costs of health care. If they’re doing that, they’re not paying attention to the experience of a growing number of Americans, who either have themselves experienced difficulty with paying for health care, or know someone who has.

People who have never asked the price of a health-care procedure may feel they’d be uncomfortable with the question. But millions of Americans ask because they want to know — they want to know if they are being charged a little, or a lot.

Or, they’re asking because they have to, because they have to know if they can pay for something.

What the researchers thought: Not very many people are doing this

What we know: Many people are hungry for the information we deliver.

They find us in many ways, but mostly by searching on the web. “How much does an MRI cost?” “STD test cost” and so on are among the searches that lead people to us.

More examples: A woman who called from the Midwest who’s uninsured and unemployed and in pain, and who doesn’t want to pay $1,100 plus some unspecified “interpretation fee” for her MRI. The people who answered our WNYC crowdsourcing prototype in which we asked them to tell us what they were charged for a mammogram, and what they paid — and the many who were offended at being overcharged.

Consumer Opinions on health costs

People are shopping for price and quality in health care

A recent report by the Altarum Institute focused on the need for information:
“By all indications, consumers will continue to play an increasingly influential role in the selection and purchase of health care. Notably, the number of people enrolled in consumer-directed health plans (CDHP) is now equal to or greater than the number of people covered by health maintenance organizations. Americans have accumulated $18 billion in health savings accounts. Large employers are accelerating their adoption of CDHPs. In addition, the most affordable plans offered in the new health insurance exchanges are those with high deductibles. The era of $20 office visit copayments may become a thing of the past.”

The Altarum researchers also found that 46 percent of their respondents had asked about the price of a treatment before receiving it (see top graphic). In addition, 81 percent said they would be very comfortable or somewhat comfortable asking about costs.

In response to another question, 53 percent said “Consumers could help make health care more
affordable if they tried” (see bottom graphic).

Culture change is here. If you’re not asking what it costs in the health-care marketplace, you may think no one is.

But people are asking. Tens of thousands a month are asking on the Web, and they’re finding us.