Health Care Act

Poll: Medical costs and quality remain mysterious to most

Most patients say they haven’t used cost or quality information in choosing doctors and hospitals.
Most patients say they haven’t used cost or quality information in choosing doctors and hospitals. KEVIN ANDERSON - MCT

Strike another blow against the myth of the motivated medical consumer: Fewer than 10 percent of people polled in this month’s Kaiser Health Tracking Poll say they’ve seen cost-comparison information for doctors and hospitals, and fewer than 5 percent say they’ve used such data.

And about two-thirds of the people polled said it’s difficult to find out how much medical treatments and procedures cost at different doctor’s offices or hospitals.

I recently wrote about that challenge as part of a package on rising out-of-pocket costs. Many hope that as patients are forced to pay more of their own bills, they’ll become more savvy consumers and help rein in the country’s health care costs.

But that only works in two ways: Patients either have to know enough to challenge their doctors when an unnecessary test, procedure or prescription is recommended, or they have to be able and willing to shop around and choose the best value for the care they need.

“That sounds great but it’s hard to do, if not impossible,” Harriet Gatter, a Charlotte breast cancer survivor, told me recently when she outlined her struggle to shop for a better price on her annual MRI.

From what I can tell, it’s not that there’s no information available. On the contrary, we’ve been inundated with new data, whether it’s the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina listing of average charges for procedures or the latest star ratings of hospitals.

It’s that even people like Gatter, whose career is in accounting and finance, have trouble sorting through the clutter and finding information that provides a clear picture of what they’ll actually pay and what they’ll get.

The Kaiser poll found similar challenges for quality ratings: 13 percent said they’d seen quality comparisons for hospitals within the past year and 10 percent said they’d seen that information for doctors. Fewer than 10 percent said they’d used that information.

As Novant Health executive Bob Seehausen told me in January, when we were talking about the Blue Cross price list, “I’m not looking for the cheapest surgeon, but I am looking for a good value.”

So far it doesn’t seem like most of us know how to find that.

Helms: 704-358-5033;

Twitter: @anndosshelms. This blog post is done in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.