No More Blind Faith: Shopping for Health Care in the Age of the Internet

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As consumers, the apparent benefits of searching for the best price, deal, or situation in which to make our purchases has always outweighed the accompanying headaches and time commitments of shrewd shopping. This ideal has remained an absolute truth in all consumer spheres – except health care.

Health care providers seem to have been in cahoots with some mathematical devils when deciding what things are going to cost. Clearly our health is important; serious procedures requiring immediate care usually don’t take price differentials and comparison shopping into account. But so is knowing what we’re paying, why we’re paying, and even if were paying a comparable price to our neighbor down the street whom also just had biopsy. Just like that sickly sense you get when viewing a bill from an auto mechanic, how are we to know when something costs too much if we aren’t even keen on how much it should cost in the first place?

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Recent debate over health care reform has brought issues of pricing to the forefront.  The Transparency in All Health Care Pricing Act of 2010, a bill proposed in February, would require hospitals, physicians, nurses, pharmacies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, dentists and insurers to publicly post their prices to the internet. If passed, the bill would create a medical marketplace built on competition for not only the best care, but the best-priced care. And with health care prices soaring and consumers still reeling from the recession (just think how many people lost their health insurance when they also lost their job), the ramifications of this could be enormous.

The more people know about pricing, the more they’ll save, plain and simple. Most analysts also believe that the pursuit of value might allow those soaring costs to start balancing out.

The idea is that if patients begin to see themselves as customers and doctors as wholesalers, their relationship would help to control prices in the same way that comparison shopping helps control prices in other consumer spheres.

This is especially important since, according to a study done by McKinsey Quarterly, 74 percent of insured patients say they are willing to pay out-of-pocket medical expenses of less than $1,000, and more than 90 percent are willing to pay if less than $500.

With 30 to 40 million people expected to join health insurance exchanges in 2014, comparison shopping for health care will become much more prevalent.

Lucky for us, the market for delivering understandable price data to consumers is expanding. Insurers like Aetna, publishers like Thomson Reuters, and start-up companies like Change:healthcare, Vimo, and Castlight Health Inc., are giving consumers the knowledge they need to make informed decisions regarding their health care shopping. Castlight not only provides important pricing information, but also beneficial health education such as clarifications of payments and the amount of tests a doctor would need to perform for a particular ailment.

So just because we put our health in the hands of those that we trust doesn’t mean we have to pay our providers for what we know is quantity, but not necessarily quality. A price tag could help put the consumer back in command, lowering market price and opening up the internet as a medium to not only shop for clothes, but shop for health care.

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