When consumers are able to find sites that list geographically relevant prices, they can vary widely and do not specify whether the price quoted represents the consumer’s out-of-pocket cost, says the Duke study.

As more consumer-driven healthcare takes hold, healthcare payers and providers are talking more about the need for price transparency—that is, giving consumers detailed pricing information so they can better comparison shop for medical care.

Most consumers use the web as they begin a search for healthcare information. For example, about three-fourths of all searches for finding a new physician are done online, according to Accenture. But when it comes to using the web to go to a third-party, doctor, hospital or insurance company website to find and compare prices, consumers are coming away empty-handed. The information they can access to compare the cost of a medical procedure also is limited.

It is labor-intensive to find the sites, many require subscriptions, and the reliability of the pricing information contained in the sites is difficult to assess.

Those are the major conclusions of a new study from Duke University School of Medicine. “Our findings really underline how difficult it can be to find the information patients need to be informed consumers,” says fourth-year medical student Allison Kratka, the lead author on the study. “It is labor-intensive to find the sites, many require subscriptions, and the reliability of the pricing information contained in the sites is difficult to assess.”

To assess the availability of pricing information available online for consumers, Duke researchers broke down 1,726 websites that appeared on searches on Google and Bing for researching the cost of four common but non-emergency procedures—cholesterol panel, an MRI of the brain, a hip replacement and an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. To test a full range of websites, Researchers conducted the searches in several cities: Baltimore; Chicago; Charlotte, NC; Los Angeles; Manchester, NH; New York; Seattle; Tallahassee, FL; and Washington, D.C.

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The researchers found that less than a fifth of websites break out the cost of common procedures “When consumers search for healthcare prices online, only 17% of sites provide information on the price of common procedures, making it difficult for patients without insurance, who have high-deductible plans, or whose plans include other kinds of cost-sharing to determine how much their care will cost and what they will pay out of pocket,” Kratka says.

When consumers are able to find sites that list geographically relevant prices, they can vary widely and do not specify whether the price quoted represents the consumer’s out-of-pocket cost, says the Duke study. For example, in Chicago, sites listed costs from $25-$100 for a cholesterol panel, $230-$1,950 for a brain MRI, and $875-$3,958 for an upper GI endoscopy and $27,000-$80,671 for a hip replacement.

While the survey found that 295 websites provided some relevant pricing information, most others did not. 382 websites just provided links to clinics and medical offices, 371 provided only generic information and 234 provided unrelated information.

“There is a disconnect between policies that seek to encourage people to be smarter consumers and the availability of information that allows them to make the most cost-effective decisions,” says co-author Dr. Peter Ubel, a professor at Duke Fuqua school of business and at the Stanford School of Public Policy.  “A handful of states, like New Hampshire, support and market price transparency web sites, and policymakers who want consumers to participate in controlling costs need to ensure that prices are available to the average person.”

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