Healthcare shopping will work when we have the right tools

February 12, 2021
Josie Rasberry

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With the arrival of price transparency this year and the digital-first shopping experiences we’ve all been enjoying for years, the concept of “medical consumerism” has been discussed a lot as one of the next steps in the U.S.. However, a research paper that’s recently been making its way around healthcare social media points out statistics that claim medical consumerism won’t catch on with patients or reduce healthcare costs. The paper focuses on why patients tend not to shop for care, with the main reason being that they go where doctors refer them. One of the authors of the paper tweeted:

For this reason, the paper claims that it would be better to focus healthcare shopping efforts towards doctors rather than patients so that doctors can review which facilities offer the lowest price for MRIs and send patients there. The paper isn’t wrong at all; doctors should be aware of prices and send patients where they can get quality care for as low a price as possible. But to put all the responsibility on doctors is a mistake. It misses the opportunity to make lower healthcare costs a faster reality for millions of Americans. Let’s break down what we mean.

Patients go where doctors tell them because that’s their only option.

Let’s look at services like GoodRx and RxSaver as examples. These are patient-first services that allow anyone to easily shop for the most affordable option for their medication. Patients don’t shop around for MRIs because there isn’t a GoodMRI or MRISaver. There hasn’t been a digital coupon book for scans, labs, or even procedures that is easy to access and widely known. So of course patients don’t shop around. Of course they listen to their referring physician and pass by six lower-priced providers between their homes and their actual treatment locations.

Rather than saying medical consumerism won’t work, what we need to be saying is “which platforms and services will encourage medical consumerism?” Patients can’t shop for care if there’s not a way to easily do so.

And this solution still addresses the issue of needing doctors to also shop for care for their patients. Services like GoodRx and RxSaver were created for patients, but guess who else uses them? Doctors. Ask anyone if their doctor has ever given them a coupon for the drug they prescribed or directed them to a website where they could get an Rx coupon, and most everyone you ask will say they’ve had a doctor do that. We frequently see GoodRx materials in doctor’s waiting rooms because they know patients want to save money on their prescriptions.

When we have patients and doctors using platforms or services that allow them to shop for medical care, it will lower healthcare costs for individuals as well as payers. Not only that, but it also creates competition and drives down overall healthcare costs. If the hospital that charged the most for MRIs and also received the most referrals is suddenly losing all its business because patients and doctors are able to see that you can get the same quality MRI for half the cost and closer to home, guess what that hospital is going to do? Lower their prices to compete. And lower healthcare costs are a win for everyone.

So, it’s not that patients aren’t interested in shopping for care. In fact, this study reported that if given the option, 86% of patients surveyed would shop and compare medical care if it was posted online. The issue is that they’re not equipped. The real question here is not whether medical consumerism can work (because it can), the question is who is going to provide the best platform that enables medical consumerism?

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