Study: Medical Price Comparison Tools Save Money, Boost Care

Shopping around has its benefits, even in the healthcare market. A new report from UnitedHealthCare, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based healthcare insurer, shows using an online medical price comparison tool saves consumers’ money and at the same time gives them better quality of care.

Comparing more than 425,000 users and nonusers of  UnitedHealthCare’s online service myHealthcare Cost Estimator, the insurer found of those who used the tool, 7% are more likely to choose a high-quality primary care doctor and 9% are more likely to select a high quality orthopedist. UnitedHealthCare uses a proprietary analysis of care quality and cost efficiency to designate a doctor as high-quality.

“A fairly significant number of consumers who are using this tool tend to see higher quality and more efficient doctors then those who do not,” says Victoria Bogatyrenko, vice president of innovation at UnitedHealthcare. “Many consumers think higher quality doctors cost more but there are many physicians who are high quality and low cost.”

Consumer driven healthcare requires you to shop around

In this era of consumer driven healthcare, people have to shop around before getting any treatments or procedures. After all, one provider can charge more than another one around the block.  Because of the need for price transparency, a number of Internet tools have cropped up both from independent players and the nation’s insurance providers. These tools give you access to all sorts of price information in your local area. Almost all of these services are free. For example UnitedHealthcare’s myEstimator can be used by members and non-members.  Members who use the tool can search for services and a list of providers based on their unique health plan.

To illustrate the reach of some of these tools consider myHealthcare Cost Estimator. UnitedHealth says it covers 748,000 doctors, 5,600 facilities and offers treatment prices for over 635 individual services. Meanwhile FAIR Health, the non-profit aimed at bringing transparency to healthcare costs, uses billions of billed medical and dental services to provide price comparison results. At FAIR Health consumers can get information about the cost of all sorts of medical and dental treatments. It also lets people compare the prices when they have insurance and when they don’t.

AARP’s Health Care Costs Calculator shows retirees how healthcare costs affect retirement and provides tips to minimize those future costs. That’s particularly important for retirees who are living on a budget and/or don’t have long term insurance for any future illnesses.

“It’s not just about a single tool,” says Bogatyrenko. “It’s a broader experience focused on how to educate people about their benefits and how a personalized tool is useful to you.”

Quality of care has a direct impact on costs

According to Bogatyrenko, while cost matters a lot, especially since consumers have to contribute more money to their care, giving people the ability to choose their doctor based on the quality of the physician is equally important. After all, doctors who know what they are doing are less likely to require unnecessary tests and use the proper treatments or prescriptions saving the healthcare system money and reducing the amount of out of pocket expense the patient faces.

While there are many free services available to figure out the costs of procedures, experts say it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the tool you want to use whether it’s through an insurer or online before anything happens. Far too often people will start researching when they find out they are sick but having a good idea of who the high quality doctors are ahead of time will eliminate any rush decisions that could end up costing you more. “Whether you are with UnitedHealth or any other carrier take the time to understand your benefits and all the information and support available to you,” says Bogatyrenko.