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More Americans Are Checking Prices Before Getting Health Care

Filed by KOSU News in Health.
May 31, 2012

Do you shop around for the best price on a visit to the doctor, a CT scan or surgery at a hospital? If so, it looks like you’ve got a little more company.

In the latest NPR-Thomson Reuters Health Poll we asked people across the country whether they size up the prices for care before making decisions. And, if so, how they do it. We put the same questions to more than 3,000 people back in September 2010, and we were curious to see how much had changed.

Right off the bat, we wanted to find out the proportion of households that included someone who had received health care services in the past year. About 81 percent of the households we asked in April had, virtually the same as the 80 percent we found in 2010.

Among the recent health care consumers, 16 percent said they’d looked for prices beforehand, compared with 11 percent who’d answered that way in the previous poll.

OK, so where do they turn for price info? The most common source is a doctor’s office, cited by 50 percent of those households that had checked recently on prices. But, that was down 10 percentage points from 2010.

The second-most-popular source was insurance companies at about 49 percent. And insurers were big gainers since 2010, when only about 26 percent of the price checkers consulted them.

Most commonly, people got the information in person — at about 53 percent. That’s up a bit from 2010, when it ran 47 percent. As a shopping tool, the telephone dropped in popularity to 48 percent from 61 percent in 2010. Email and the Internet zoomed to 45 percent from 22 percent.

A solid majority of people who sought information found what they were looking for. Most said it was accurate, though the overall proportion on that score dropped to 86 percent from 98 percent in 2010.

A little less than two-thirds said the information influenced their health care decision this time around. “In every age group, regardless of income, more than half of the respondents said that it influenced their choice of provider,” says Dr. Ray Fabius, chief medical officer for Thomson Reuters’ health unit. “To me, that’s the biggest revelation.”

Changes in insurance may be spurring interest in the prices charged for health services. There’s been a big increase in high-deductible insurance plans paired with health savings accounts. That kind of coverage gives people a strong incentive to shop around, Fabius notes.

Still, how much pricing information will alter consumers choices more broadly is far from clear. “Even if we assume for argument’s sake perfect price transparency, we still have the problem that most health care demand is price inelastic,” Richard Evans, a health care analyst at Sector & Sovereign Research, said in an email after reviewing the results of the poll.

“I think much of the reason is that the majority of health care spending comes from a minority of persons, and because each of these persons has very large spending amounts in excess of their deductibles,” he wrote. “By extension, a great majority of total spending is by or on behalf of persons who are in effect spending someone else’s money — and this remains true even if we move to quite large deductibles.”

The nationwide telephone poll of 3,008 adults was conducted during the first half of April. The margin for error is plus or minus 1.8 percentage points. Click here to read the questions and complete results. You can find the previous polls here, or by clicking on the NPR-Thomson Reuters Health Poll tag below. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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