Are healthcare's cost estimate tools making matters worse for patients?

As more consumers shoulder a greater proportion of their healthcare costs, they are becoming savvier shoppers when selecting healthcare services. Many people rely on online cost estimation tools to inform their decisions. While these resources are a good idea in theory, they don't always yield accurate results, according to NPR.

For example, NPR cites the experience of a couple that used UnitedHealthcare's online estimator for the cost of an MRI scan. Scott Savett searched for the typical cost of MRI scans in his region. The online calculator said the average cost is $1,270, the lowest is $512 and the "above average" cost is $1,790. The tool also provided Mr. Savett with a list of different providers and an estimate of how much each would charge for an MRI under the Savett's insurance plan.

Mr. Savett opted for a provider with an estimate of about $500 for the service. However, a few days before the MRI was supposed to take place, the radiology office called to let the Savetts know the scan would cost $2,400.

As it turned out, the price was misquoted on the cost estimator because a hospital had purchased the imaging center and raised the price.

This is just one instance of inaccurate cost estimates. "There's lots and lots of variability in the information that's provided to consumers," Francois de Brantes, director of Newton, Conn.-based Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute, told NPR.

Some estimators reflect a combined range of possible costs, while others are based off historical pricing or claims data from various sources. Many online estimate tools are restricted in the types of procedures they include, according to NPR. Some industry experts say creating consistently accurate cost estimation tools is impossible because the calculators are usually based on one specific procedure and therefore do not reflect everything that is billable during a visit.

But Mr. de Brantes believes enhancing cost estimation tools is possible, according to NPR. The information consumers are seeking exists in the healthcare system, though it might be hidden behind contract agreements. Mr. de Brantes said there is insufficient internal pressure to make the necessary improvements to the online calculators.

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