“Health care consumers in the dark” – no kidding

That headline appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune print edition yesterday. The focus of the article was how difficult it is to obtain medical cost data despite a state law and other efforts to increase transparency.

The same newspaper had a brief column the previous day about open enrollment season for workplace medical benefits, but that column’s final line seemed to conflict with the point of the longer story mentioned above.  The shorter column quoted the executive director of the MN Community Measurement group saying that the group’s rankings – “rating doctors on whether they provide optimal care to patients with diabetes, depression and other conditions….can help consumers make informed choices.”  The exec said consumers can now ask, “Is there much difference in quality, given the difference you might be asked to pay in price?”

Well, the “Health care consumers in the dark” story drove home the point that consumers can’t get the price answers.

Meantime, it was great to see a JAMA Internal Medicine article about a great piece of journalism on this same topic.  The article, by Lisa Aliferis of KQED radio in San Francisco, was entitled, “Variation in Prices for Common Medical Tests and Procedures.” It gives details about the PriceCheck project of KQED, KPPC, and the excellent ClearHealthCosts.com effort run by Jeanne Pinder.  Aliferis concludes the article:

“The window is cracked open on health cost transparency. We have been here before—with car sales, with airline tickets. Now, technology in combination with transparency can do the same for health care.

And yes, we have been asked whether people should “shop” for medical treatment in the same way they shop for a new car. If there were a correlation between cost and quality, this might be a reasonable question. Instead, in American health care, money is spent on unnecessary or unproven treatments much too often, and there’s widespread variation in price. People are waking up to these facts.

The money conversation makes the practice of medicine very complicated: the “gotcha” bill and the medication that is not covered challenge the physician-patient relationship. It is time to take off the blindfold and embrace transparency in pricing for medical care and services.”

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