Paying the Price: Is a Lack of Transparency Costing You Patients?

realself, prices, transparency

Buying a car. Booking a hotel room. Pursuing a remodel or home improvement project. Despite the obvious differences between the three activities, they all share a common characteristic: Thanks to the power of the Internet, consumers now have access to an unprecedented amount of information about what the goods and services they seek are likely to cost.

These days, you can add healthcare to the list. As a new report from Public Agenda clearly shows, people pursuing medical services are hungry for more and better price information about what those services will cost them. Among the findings:

  • 56% of Americans say they have tried to find out how much they would have to pay a doctor or hospital, before getting care.
  • Among those who have not ever tried to find out a price before getting care, 57% say they would like to know the prices of medical services in advance — and 43% would choose less expensive doctors if they knew the prices in advance.
  • 33% say that when trying to find price information before getting care, they have checked prices from just one provider while 21% compared prices across multiple providers.
  • Among those who have compared prices across multiple providers, 62% believe they have saved money.
  • 71% say higher prices are not typically a sign of better-quality medical care.

Together, the findings provide compelling support for the idea that patients are also very much healthcare consumers. Instead of being passive participants who simply “follow doctor’s orders,” they’re conducting their own research, reading reviews from other users and, yes, factoring costs into their decision-making processes. As healthcare management consultant Kenneth Kaufman puts it,

The traditional distinction between “consumer” and “patient” comes down to degree of independence. In a pure state, a consumer is able to make a fully informed and independent decision about whether and what to purchase, while a patient has no choice but to seek services and is dependent on people and entities to help make decisions and provide care. In our health care system, however, these definitions seldom apply in their pure states. And, as the health care business model changes, traditional definitions are even less applicable.

In a way, aesthetic medicine is at the forefront of this evolution for the simple reason that the majority of patient/consumers clearly have an abundance of choices. With thousands of their own dollars at stake, they’re among the least likely patients to just pick up the phone or visit the nearest clinic when seeking care. Instead, they count on Internet-enabled price transparency to give them a reasonable idea of whether they can afford to pursue a procedure, along with a general idea of total costs and the price differences among potential providers.

The demand for price transparency shows up in several ways. On RealSelf, a quick search reveals that community members have asked more than 350,000 questions that start with the words “How much…” At the same time, the majority of aesthetic consumers can be considered comparison shoppers, who simply won’t make a decision without considering multiple options. In a recent RealSelf survey, 70% of respondents said they actively researched 2–5 doctors; when asked why they didn’t pick a particular doctor, 29% cited cost, more than any other factor.

Which is not to say that price is the only factor or even the most important one in patients’ decision-making processes. For one thing, most aesthetic consumers realize that procedure prices depend on many factors; for another, they incorporate a host of other factors — board certification, reviews from other patients, before and after photos, etc. — as they conduct their research. Empowered with information on all of the above, such consumers have a better idea of not only what to expect from their aesthetic experiences but also who is best-suited to provide it. As Dr. Kenneth Croen of the Scarsdale Medical Group writes,

A frank discussion of costs will not hinder the doctor-patient relationship. A lack of transparency will.

Doctor Takeaway

Price transparency doesn’t have to be a problem for doctors

To post prices or not to post price, that is the question. Doctors who do publish prices feel that it eliminates “tire-kickers” who aren’t serious about pursuing a procedure; those that don’t feel it represents a race to the bottom that emphasizes dollar-cost over perceived value. It is, of course, a personal decision but the reality is that people already have abundant access to price information and many factor it into their decision-making. Doctors should factor it into theirs, as well.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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