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Health-Care Shoppers Still in the Dark, Study Says

Information on state websites isn't useful, researchers find

TUESDAY, June 18, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- State websites that report the costs of health care services aren't much use to patients who want to compare prices, according to a new U.S. study.

"There's growing enthusiasm for improving transparency of prices for health services to help people be well-informed consumers and make better decisions about their care. The problem is that most of the information that's out there isn't particularly useful to the patients themselves," study lead author Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren, health services researcher in the VA Center for Clinical Management Research and the division of general medicine in the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a U-M Health System news release.

"As more Americans face high levels of cost-sharing in their insurance plans, it's even more important to improve access to data that help them anticipate their out-of-pocket expenses and evaluate their options," he added.

The federal government recently released hospitals' charges for procedures and services, but that kind of data won't provide much help to patients trying to assess their health care options, according to the study, published June 18 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers analyzed 62 state websites meant to help patients estimate or compare prices for health care services. But most of the sites only reported billed charges, not what patients were actually expected to pay.

Among the other findings:

  • Most of the websites focused on prices for in-hospital care, which is often urgent and something for which many patients can't plan ahead.
  • Websites rarely included prices for outpatient services, such as laboratory and radiology tests that are often predictable or less urgent, and therefore good candidates for comparison shopping.
  • Most websites didn't provide information about quality alongside prices for services where price could be tied to differences in quality.

More information

The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research offers tips for choosing quality health care.

SOURCE: University of Michigan Health System, news release, June 18, 2013
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