Study: Americans support healthcare price shopping, yet few research price data

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Thirteen percent of Americans with out-of-pocket spending related to their last healthcare experience sought information about expected expenses prior to care, according to a recent Health Affairs study.

To examine consumers' price shopping habits, researchers — led by Ateev Mehrotra, MD, an associate professor of healthcare policy and medicine in the department of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, both in Boston — surveyed 2,996 adults ages 18 to 64 who received healthcare in the past 12 months and paid out-of-pocket for some of the care.

The study authors analyzed price shopping by the following measures: price awareness, active price searching, consideration of another provider and price comparison.

Here are six study findings.

1. Most respondents said price shopping for healthcare is important and didn't believe high-cost providers were associated with higher quality, the report states.

2. However, only 3 percent of respondents compared healthcare costs across providers prior to care.

3. The most common barrier to healthcare price shopping included hardships associated with gaining price information and avoidance of disrupting ongoing provider relationships.

4. While 52 percent of respondents knew the price of care before receiving it, only 13 percent searched for an estimated out-of-pocket cost.

5. Of the 13 percent who searched for an out-of-pocket price, 63 percent called their provider, 25 percent used a website and 9 percent called their health plan.

6. Providers offering physical therapy and lab tests or imaging services represented the providers respondents compared costs across most — 24 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Study authors concluded the "results emphasize that simply passing price transparency laws or regulations (as over half of states have done) appears insufficient to facilitate price shopping. Price information must be more accessible and comprehensible to patients." They added, "Efforts to encourage price shopping may need to be targeted to selected clinical contexts that are suitable for shopping." 

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