Consumers Support Price Shopping for Healthcare but Few Actually Seek Out Prices

Oh, the growing awareness of the wide variation in healthcare prices, increased availability of price data and increased patient cost sharing was expected to drive patients to shop for lower-cost medical services. But a recent report by Health Affairs, in a nationally representative survey of 2,996 non-elderly US adults who had received medical care in the previous 12 months, the organization set out to assess how frequently patients are price shopping for care and the barriers they face in doing so.

Of those who responded, only 13 percent of these patients who had some out-of-pocket spending in their last healthcare encounter had sought information about their expected spending before receiving care, and just 3 percent had compared costs across providers before receiving care.

According to Health Affairs, the “low rates of price shopping do not appear to be driven by opposition to the idea: The majority of respondents believed that price shopping for care is important and did not believe that higher-cost providers were of higher quality. Common barriers to shopping included difficulty obtaining price information and a desire not to disrupt existing provider relationships.”

For healthcare consumerism to work, patients need to research and compare healthcare costs. The idea is that Americans shopping for the most cost-effective care will lower costs.

Healthcare Dive points out that out-of-pocket spending for U.S. patients rose 41 percent from 2010 to 2014, mostly because of the proliferation of high-deductible health plans, according to the authors. Additionally, one-third of Americans with employer-based health insurance are on a high-deductible plan. The most popular Affordable Care Act exchanges health plans have average deductibles of more than $5,000, the study noted.

The argument for transparency in healthcare regarding prices doesn’t seem to be affecting the way people purchase their plans or their care. Despite these efforts, though, most of us don’t seem too interested in healthcare prices.

“Study authors found that one barrier to getting healthcare price data is that people need to track down the information and they are concerned about disrupting relationships with providers. The study authors said ‘simply passing price transparency laws or regulations (as more than half of states have done) appears insufficient to facilitate price shopping,’” the news site says.

Recommendations following the survey made by Health Affairs, include: Healthcare system can do a better job making the data more accessible and understandable, and two areas to focus on include physical therapy and lab tests/imaging services. The survey found that patients who sought out-of-pocket cost data did so the most for physical therapy (24 percent) and lab tests/imaging services (11 percent).

“Price information must be more accessible and comprehensible to patients. However, our results show that even if the information were more easily accessible, patients’ preferences to maintain provider relationships and efforts to coordinate care would limit overall rates of shopping. Efforts to encourage price shopping may need to be targeted to selected clinical contexts that are suitable for shopping,” the survey’s authors wrote.

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Scott Rupp


Scott E. Rupp is a writer and an award-winning journalist focused on healthcare technology. He has worked as a public relations executive for a major electronic health record/practice management vendor, and he currently manages his own agency, millerrupp. In addition to writing for a variety of publications, Scott also offers his insights on healthcare technology and its leaders on his site, Electronic Health Reporter.

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