By Mark Salamon, March 1, 2018
A new study out of Duke University has turned the medical world on its head by showing that patients have a hard time finding out how much medical procedures actually cost. This is the kind of meat and potatoes research that grabs me, the kind that gives us brand new information that no one already knew.
The results, which were published in JAMA Internal Medicine, showed that only 17% of websites offered any information that was remotely related to price, and when they did, the range of prices made the information practically useless. For example, “prices for cholesterol testing in Chicago ranged from $25 to $100, brain MRIs ranged from $230 to $1,950, and hip replacements went from $27,000 to $80,671.” (1)
Lead author Dr. Peter Ubel summed up the results, saying “Our findings suggest that there is substantial room for improvement in providing customers with ready access to health care prices online”, earning him an immediate nomination for the 2018 Excellence in Medicine Award.
I decided to do some digging to find out why the difficulty, and I found out that the medical industry models their pricing system on that of the airline industry, which utilizes a sophisticated and complex computer program that takes into account a wide range of factors including gas prices, customer demand, weather patterns, seat availability, time of year, political unrest, unemployment numbers, your personal bank account balance, and Justin Bieber’s house arrest status. These numbers are crunched using a supercomputer, and the results are then filed away somewhere while they use one of those lottery machines with ping-pong balls blowing around like popcorn to pick a random number that will be used as that days price.
As a healthcare provider, I have the pleasure of working every day with an equally ingenious system of pricing. I’ll never forget one of my earliest experiences when one of my patients needed a knee brace that wasn’t covered by his insurance. He asked me to find out how much the brace would cost if he were to just buy it himself. I knew this was a ridiculous question, but I always go the extra mile for my patients no matter how unusual their request. So I called the rep and spent about twenty minutes on the phone playing a fun filled game of “try to get me to name the price”. I was doing pretty well, but the rep stole the victory because to get to the final level I would have had to attend a seminar and listen to a presentation about a timeshare in Florida.
But that’s ok, because money is no object, especially for patients. In fact, Dr. Karandeep Singh from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor stated that “Cost isn’t necessarily going to be the the main factor driving patient’s decisions about health care…often, patients will decide to go for care based on which providers are in-network with their insurance, and this might not always include the highest-quality or most affordable providers”. That should put all of our minds at ease. I mean, why should we waste time worrying about things like cost and quality when we have a system that provides patients with hours of hilarious phone fun that those in other countries only wish they had access to.
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