Researchers of a new study published in the February 11 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine say Americans can readily access information about hospital quality, but that’s not the case when it comes to obtaining prices for a common surgical procedure.
The study also suggests that efforts to achieve greater transparency in pricing have largely been ineffective.
"There have been many initiatives to increase pricing transparency, including state and federal laws, and still many hospitals are unable to provide price information for a common procedure," according to a statement from lead study author, Jaime Rosenthal, who conducted the research as a summer project at UI Carver College of Medicine.
For the study, researchers randomly selected two hospitals from each state in the U.S. that performed total hip replacements, as well as 20 of the top orthopedic hospitals listed in U.S. News & World Report.
In order to find out how much each hospital would charge, Rosenthal pretended to be asking on behalf of a fictitious patient – specifically, a 62-year-old grandmother without health insurance who was going to pay for the procedure herself. Rosenthal asked each hospital to provide the lowest "complete" price for an elective total hip replacement that included physician and hospital fees.
When the hospital was only able to give an estimate for the hospital fee, but not the physician fee, researchers then contacted a hospital-affiliated orthopedic surgeon to get an estimated physician fee.
It took researchers contacting each hospital up to five times to get a quote, with results showing that 40% of the top-ranked orthopedic hospitals – and 36% of those not top-ranked – were not able to provide an estimated price for a total hip replacement. And of those that could provide an estimate, there was a huge disparity in pricing, with a tenfold difference between the lowest priced estimate of $11,100 and the highest priced estimate at $125,798.
Rosenthal says the huge range in prices is “striking”, and suggests that a "savvy" consumer would be able to shop around for some significant savings.
"Our study suggests that it is important for consumers to ask for information about the cost of medical care and procedures and to be persistent," Rosenthal said, adding that the message for policy makers and hospital managers is they have a long way to go to improve their pricing transparency.