Cost estimations: What patients are increasingly asking for

Cost matters to patients just as much as it does to hospitals. Office visit copayments are giving way to high deductibles, and more consumers are beginning to take charge of their medical payments. A new survey from health care industry research firm Altarum Institute found that while the majority of patients do not inquire about care costs before they receive treatments or hospital services, more are starting to ask about their medical bills. While many patients may not consider costs when they obtain care – and some may even insist on undergoing expensive treatments, according to a New York Times blog – an increasing number of patients are keeping a closer eye on their finances.

As additional patients begin to ask about their medical costs when they book appointments or hospital visits, providing accurate cost estimations will be important for hospitals to maintain high patient satisfaction, collect payments and stay financially secure. In fact, it might be one of the key factors in creating a positive patient experience and how patients view the quality of their care in the near future.

Cost is important to patients
Altarum’s fall 2013 Survey of Consumer Health Care Opinions asked its 3,004 participants online about their recent health care visits, their reported health status and their consumer preferences. The survey found patients are beginning to feel more comfortable speaking to their providers about their care options – and the costs associated with certain treatments.

Nine out of 10 respondents indicated they value having a say in the decision-making process, with 43 percent saying they want to make final decisions with the help of their physicians and health care experts. Fewer patients said they wished to be the sole decision makers of their care, with only 16 percent saying so in the fall 2013 compared to more than 20 percent saying the same in spring 2013. What this means is that patients consider their medical care as a partnership between themselves and their providers. Care decisions are not just a one-way street where physicians have complete control. Cost estimations create a two-way street based on communication.

However, nearly as many respondents indicated cost was an important factor in their choice of providers as physician quality was. Thirty-two percent of respondents reported they asked about cost right at the point-of-service or when booking an appointment, and 35 percent said they reviewed physician quality before making their choice. While the study indicated 4 out of 5 patients said they aren’t shy about inquiring after price, only 46 percent of respondents said they actually asked about cost before their visits. The study noted patients are becoming more aware about their overall care, and the survey’s findings may indicate that more patients are realizing being able to pay for services is extremely important to their care in light of health care reform.

“It’s a positive sign that people are open to asking their doctors about costs and involving themselves in their health care decisions,” said Wendy Lynch, director of the Altarum Institute’s Center for Consumer Choice in Health Care and the study’s author. “But overall, the study shows that people still have their head in the sand when it comes to what they think they can control. They have more power than they realize just by asking questions; now they just need to use it.”

Patients scrutinize their health care expenses
Americans’ increased awareness about their medical payments is partly due to the economic downturn, which reminded people about the importance of financial management, but also rising hospital prices. In fact, many organizations and consumer advocacy groups have started to scrutinize how much hospitals are actually billing patients. According to new data from National Nurses United, some hospitals have overcharged patients for medical services. Certain health systems had billed patients 10 times the true cost of treatment or services. The data indicates more than one dozen hospitals have charged $1,000 for every $100 of their total costs.

For some patients, this indicates that not only is it in their best financial interest to ask for a cost estimation, but that it is in hospitals’ as well. The more informed patients are regarding their medical expenses, the better they will be able to provide timely payments. To improve patient collections, hospitals need to give patients the information they need when they need it, i.e. before they even step into the hospital.