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More people are shopping around for health care than you might think

Keith Ramsey/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

Conventional wisdom says that most people don't shop around for health care. It's generally accepted that if people do shop for care, it's a frustrating experience.

So I was surprised to read a study, released last week by the nonprofit organization Public Agenda, saying that 56 percent of Americans have tried to find out how much they would have to pay out of pocket, or how much their insurer would pay, before getting care.

That finding elicited a similar response from one of the report's authors.

"We were surprised to find that so many people had at least tried to do it," says David Schleifer, senior research associate at Public Agenda. He added, "We know that it's hard for people to find that information."

Public Agenda surveyed 2,010 adults last summer for the report, called "How Much Will it Cost?" The findings paint a picture of who is currently shopping around for health care, and what it will take to convince more people to start comparing health costs.

Who's asking about prices?

The report paints a picture of who has asked for price information. I'll summarize the conclusions this way: It seems like people are more likely to ask about prices if they've had experience being on the hook for their medical bills.

According to the study, 67 percent of those with deductibles between $500 and $3,000, and 74 percent of those with deductibles higher than $3,000, have tried to get price information before getting care.

This makes sense: As Impatient has reported before, people with these high-deductible health plans must shoulder a larger portion of their health costs before insurance kicks in.

Those who have been uninsured at some point in the past year, and those who have received a surprisingly high medical bill, have also sought price information before getting care, the report says.

Who's comparison shopping?

The report goes deeper, differentiating between people who have checked prices from just one provider, and those who have gone the extra mile and compared prices across multiple providers.

It finds that about one in five Americans – 21 percent – have compared prices. Again, it appears that people who are familiar with the burden of high health costs are the ones most likely to compare prices. They include:

  • People who are making health care decisions for adult family members;
  • Patients who visit the doctor regularly;
  • People who make less than $100,000;
  • Younger people, Latinos and African-Americans.

For most of that 21 percent, comparison shopping appears to be working: 62 percent believe doing it has helped them save money;  76 percent say it influenced their choice of provider; and an estimated 82 percent say they're likely to do it again.

Will shopping catch on?

To recap: It turns out a smaller group of people are already shopping for health care and are finding it beneficial.

Plus, busting another long-held myth in health care, the study finds that most Americans  - 71 percent of the survey respondents - don't believe that higher-priced care equals higher-quality care.

So why aren't more people getting on board with shopping around for health care prices? One reason: There's a knowledge gap.

As we reported through our #PriceCheck project, there is a huge variation in the prices of medical services. But not everyone knows this.

Among insured Americans, only 43 percent think some doctors covered under their insurance plans charge more than others for the same services. Among uninsured people, just 51 percent think some doctors charge different amounts for the same services.

Another reason: The report says that among those who have never requested price information before getting care, 50 percent don't know how to find out those costs. And 48 percent say knowing prices isn’t a priority.

Dr. Neeraj Sood, director of research for USC's Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, is familiar with all of these challenges. "Most people don't think about price shopping for health care," he says. "It just doesn't come naturally to them."

So what's his solution?

"We first have to convince them that there is value, and that it is fine to shop for health care," he says. Then "they will start to get over their inertia."

Your experience

Do you comparison shop for health care? What's your strategy, and how well has it worked for you? Would you like to, or have you tried and been stymied? Tell us about it in the comments section below, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org.

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