Patients lukewarm toward price transparency tools

Patients have lukewarm feelings toward price transparency tools, but better education and outreach from providers on these products could increase their use, according to a small study.

Researchers led by a team at Harvard Medical School surveyed 39 patients and found that 17 reported frequent use of pricing tools, 13 used such tools infrequently and nine had never used them. There were a number of barriers to regular use among these patients, the researchers found.

Some simply forgot they could use them, and others found they were not useful. Respondents in rural areas did not use price transparency tools often because of the limited number of providers they could choose from locally, according to the study. Other patients chose not to use price transparency tools because they were loyal to their doctors.

The results suggest that providers can do more to remind patients that price transparency tools are available, and to alert them to the appropriate uses.

“For price transparency tools to be used more effectively, the public needs education and reminders about how, when and why they should price shop,” the study team concluded. “They need reminders about the availability of price data and ideally to be provided with the data at the time of decision making, especially for services that could be defined as shop-able.”

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Prior research suggests that 1 in 5 patients comparison-shop for healthcare services.

Doctors can embrace price transparency and make it work for them in a few different ways. For example, physician practices may want to offer clear fee schedules that accurately reflect what prices are, but not necessarily give all the information away for free. Jonathan Kaplan, M.D., a plastic surgeon based in San Francisco and founder and CEO of BuildMyBod Health, an online marketplace for healthcare services, for instance, requires patients to register their contact information before they access pricing data.

Some doctors, particularly those in the emergency department, are unaware of what services cost, and that can lead to surprise balance bills for patients. As many as two-thirds of patients fail to pay their hospital bills in full.