Why shopping for healthcare services may not be worth it

If consumers shop around for healthcare services to get the cheapest price, they may get a procedure at a lower cost but also lower quality. 

That was the experience of Sarah Kliff, a healthcare journalist for Vox, who shopped around for imaging services. 

Imaging such as MRIs are among the most variable in price, and studies have suggested that introducing price transparency can increase competition among providers and lower costs for patients. The issue has even taken on a political tone, with Florida Gov. Rick Scott pushing hospitals to provide more price transparency.

But Kliff encountered what would be best described as unanticipated variables when she went shopping for the MRIs for her stress-fractured foot. Her insurer had asked if she was willing to use a less expensive imaging center, one that would cost about $400 less than what the nearby academic medical center charged.

"I'd long understood MRIs as a commodity healthcare service, essentially an advanced photograph that would come out the same regardless of who snapped it. So, in the sake of doing my part to lower national health spending, I switched to the cheaper center," Kliff wrote.

But Kliff's orthopedic specialist hadn't communicated with the MRI center, requiring her to wait at his office much longer than expected for the image to be sent over. And once the image arrived, her doctor noted the image was low quality. If she chose the more expensive center, the process would have been smoother, she noted. "I inadvertently created a new inefficiency in my own attempt to reduce wasteful spending," wrote Kliff, who said next time she'd go back to her regular hospital for services. 

To learn more:
- read the Vox article