Friday, February 15, 2013

Would you buy a car without knowing the price?

No one would think of buying a car without knowing the price, but Americans buy medical services every day without knowing the price they or their insurance companies will pay.

It’s a state of affairs that unquestionably must be changed if we are to have any chance of improving the cost and delivery of health care in a nation that pays more for it than any other on the planet.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week identified part of what ails our system of health care. Researchers arranged for a “secret shopper” using a pre-tested script to ask 102 randomly selected hospitals in every state as well as the top 20 U.S. orthopedic hospitals how much it would cost the shopper’s uninsured 62-year-old grandmother for a total hip replacement. The shopper sought a bundled price for both hospital and physician charges.

Researchers found that prices varied wildly and that many hospitals could not quote a price for the common procedure.

Top-ranked hospital prices ranged from $12,500 to $105,000. Prices at the non-ranked hospitals ranged from $11,100 to $125,798. Only 16 percent of the hospitals were able to provide a bundled priced while an additional 47 percent could do so when the researchers contacted hospitals and health care providers separately.

Researchers wrote, “Obtaining pricing information was difficult and frequently required multiple conversations with numerous staff members at each hospital as well as affiliated physician offices.”

They also wrote, “Our calls to hospitals were often greeted by uncertainty and confusion by the hospital representatives about how to assist us. We were frequently transferred between departments, asked to leave messages that were rarely returned, and told that prices could not be estimated without an office visit.”

The study results are remarkable given that major industries today collect information on everything from web surfing habits to the best price for a TV. Giant databases are available to inform us about everything but health care.

For patients and families, getting health care information is difficult because the need for it too often occurs when they are caught up in emotions that come with serious illness. It also gets tangled up with the antiquated attitude that health care providers possess knowledge and judgment that should never be questioned.

As the U.S. looks to reform health care by increasing transparency, improving outcomes of medical procedures and controlling prices, it’s time we insisted that today’s information technology serve not only medical providers, but patients and their families as well.

If the medical marketplace won’t produce the necessary information, then government must step in and demand it—for the sake of our health.

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