How hospitals hide pricing data from web search results: WSJ

HCA Healthcare and Universal Health Services are among hundreds of hospitals that have embedded special coding within their websites to block previously confidential pricing information from appearing in web searches, according to a March 22 Wall Street Journal report. 

Seven things to know: 

1. Hospital services pricing information must be disclosed under  a new federal price transparency rule that went into effect place Jan. 1, but hundreds of hospitals have embedded code in their website that has prevented Google and other search engines from showing pages with the price lists, according to the Journal's examination of more than 3,100 sites. 

2. The code prevents pages from appearing in searches, such as a hospital's name and prices, computer experts told the Journal. While the prices are still there, it requires clicking through multiple layers of pages to find them. 

3. "It's technically there, but good luck finding it," Chirag Shah, an associate computer professor at the University of Washington, told the Journal. "It's one thing not to optimize your site for searchability, it's another thing to tag it so it can't be searched. It’s a clear indication of intentionality." 

4. Hospitals burying their pricing data include those owned by HCA Healthcare and Universal Health Services as well as the University of Pennsylvania Health System, NYU Langone Health, Beaumont Health and Novant Health, according to the Journal

5. Penn Medicine, NYU Langone Health and Novant Health told the publication they used the blocking code to direct patients first to information they "considered more useful than raw pricing data," for which they included web links. UHS uses the blocking code to ensure consumers acknowledge a disclosure statement before viewing prices and is making no effort to hide information, a hospital spokesperson told the Journal

6. After the Journal reached out to hospitals about its discovery, the search-blocking code was removed from sites including those of HCA, Penn Medicine, Beaumont, Avera Health, Ballad Health and Northern Light Health. 

7. An HCA spokesperson told the publication the search blocker was "a legacy code that we removed," and Avera, Ballad, Beaumont and Northern Light said the code had been left on their websites by mistake.


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