Consumers want price-comparison tools but don’t use them

Healthcare consumers say they want price transparency, but research suggests very few people actually use that information to lower their care costs.

A study published in the August issue of Health Affairs reports that a nationwide survey found that the number of patients who actually consult price-comparison tools during an encounter with the healthcare system is far lower than the number who believe price shopping is an important tool.

Of the nearly 3,000 nonelderly adults who had interacted with the healthcare system in the previous 12 months, only 13% indicated they looked at price-comparison information. Only 3% of those surveyed actually made decisions based on that information.

Another study in the same issue offers a case in point: When the California Public Employees’ Retirement System offered beneficiaries enrolled in a Blue Cross PPO plan a website and app for comparing prices and out-of-pocket spending among care providers in their network, patient response was similarly underwhelming.

About 12% of those with access to the tool used it in the first 15 months it was available, and savings across the patient population that used the tool averaged 14% compared to those who did not.

The authors of both studies note that their findings echo a growing body of recent research suggesting consumers have difficulty translating their interest in comparing the cost of care among providers into practical action.

In the nationwide study, the authors found patients encountered two barriers to the use of price comparisons: lack of accessibility of price data and structural resistance to switching providers. For price shopping to be effective, they suggest regulatory action requiring price transparency will fall short of the mark. Instead, the industry needs to focus on broader accessibility of information that makes sense to patients and on which patients can reasonably act.

Even that may not be sufficient to make price comparison broadly effective, however.

“Our results show that even if the information were more easily accessible, patients’ preferences to maintain provider relationships and efforts to coordinate care would limit overall rates of shopping,” the authors wrote.