Choice In Health Care? A Hassle Worth The Effort

Asking questions about care is a hassle, an inconvenience, and sometimes a frustrating battle against a system unfamiliar with sharing information or control.

It was almost a miracle, an immediate answer to my question about the cost of an ultrasound.

"$196 including the interpretation, and we price-match if you find a better price somewhere else."

In my eight years having a health savings account (HSA), clear, immediate information about cost has been extremely rare. Most often, "How much?" provokes the dismissive evasion of "It depends" or irritation, followed by "We have no way of knowing."

In other instances, office personnel launch into detailed explanations about how deductibles and insurance work in an effort to convince me I don't really need to know. Another tactic is to stall: "A representative can call you with an estimated price in 3-5 days, but it will only be an estimate." Or the sad response, accompanied by a look of pity, "So you can't afford insurance?"

When I asked a surgeon about the hospital-acquired infection rates in the hospital where he performs his operations, he had the audacity to give an annoyed don't-worry-yourself-about-such-things expression and report that "In my area of the hospital," patients don't get infections. This contradicted my knowledge that some of his own patients had, in fact, developed infections.

Asking questions about care is a hassle, an inconvenience, and sometimes a frustrating battle against a system unfamiliar with sharing information or control. By tradition, we can't get a test without a doctor's order, we can't receive our own test until the doctor gets it first, we can't know how much things cost, and we can't refill a drug for the 100th time without getting another prescription exactly the same as the first 99.

In an environment built on layers of permission — have the pharmacist call the doctor who can call the insurance company — do-it-yourself requests aren't welcomed. Some providers seem genuinely insulted by requests for information. "How could you question my ________ (fill in the blank with abilities, record, skill, safety, intentions)?"

Choices in health care can be overwhelming. Which treatment? Which doctor? Which hospital? How much should I spend? What metric should I trust? In some ways it was easier when we had strict gatekeepers and coverage that paid for everything. Relying on mother-may-I rules assigns responsibility for everything to someone else, including the bill.

So why make the effort?

First, because 25-30% of the care we receive is unnecessary or could be handled with a less-invasive alternative. When employees of GE are told they need a heart procedure, transplant or back surgery, they have the option of an all-expenses paid trip with a family member to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion. In about one-quarter of the cases referred so far, the experts at Cleveland Clinic have determined the procedure isn't their best choice of care1. No matter how nice or qualified one doctor may be, he or she has a specific preference for how to treat a problem. That preference may not be the best option for every patient. Ask for a second opinion, you might get a very different answer.

Second, where we get care can drastically change the outcome. Check on sites like,, or consumer reports and you will find huge differences between hospitals in the likelihood of being harmed by errors in care. As many as forty-thousand patients per day experience an error, such as infections, wrong medications, or falls, many of them life-threatening. At an estimated 180,000 fatal events per year, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer2.

What we know is that almost half of all medical errors are preventable through low-cost efforts and policies. Yet, fewer than one-in-five hospitals implements the safety procedures known to work. This is one area where the worst offenders resist transparency, and hope you don't ask. Plus, it seems doctors themselves recommend a hospital based on familiarity, not outcomes3.

The differences are meaningful: go to a top-ranked hospital and you reduce your risk of a mistake by almost half4. If it is not an emergency, do your homework and choose wisely.

Lastly, there are two reasons to be concerned about the cost of care. One is a societal concern: at over 18% of GDP5, health care costs threaten to cripple our economy. Insurers do not choose their networks based on price or quality of care. So, it will be up to payers and consumers to put constraints on spending growth.

If you aren't motivated by the national economy, the second reason is our personal budget. With ever-increasing deductibles, it matters to our own pocketbooks to push back on providers whose prices far exceed others of similar quality. As more and more of us ask about cost and choose based on the best value, more providers will respond.

Perhaps slowly, things are changing.

More of us are inserting ourselves: If I have to pay for this, and it is happening to my body, I should know what it costs and what the results will be. We see self-serve examples like offering blood tests at a known price without having to see the doctor first6. Here's a good idea: bring the cholesterol results to your check-up so you can talk about them without scheduling another follow-up visit.

Also, some facilities, such as the $196-priced group mentioned at the beginning of this blog, are responding to increased price sensitivity by offering an upfront, guaranteed price. At least it eliminates one of the many unknowns we face during a medical episode. As a comparison, another preeminent facility took five days to answer my cost question for a simple ultrasound. The price? $625 for the test, and another $650 for the mandatory visit with one of their doctors. "But," they said, "we can't be held to this price, it is only an estimate." As you might guess, I chose the former.

It's not easy getting involved in these choices. I totally empathize and understand those who give up and simply go with the easiest option. My compliments to fellow health care explorers trying to navigate a seemingly endless list of decisions. I admire those who stick with it. It can make a difference.

This article was first posted on

1 Lynch WD. Personal Communication. 2012.

2 Levine B. The Hospital Harm Factor. Patient Safety, Natural Health Blog [Internet]. 2011; 2012. Available from:

3 Morsi E, Lindenauer PK, Rothberg MB. Primary care physicians' use of publicly reported quality data in hospital referral decisions. Journal of hospital medicine : an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine. 2012;7(5):370-5. Epub 29 FEB 2012.

4 HealthGrades. Patient Safety Excellence Award™ 2011 [cited 2012 October 31]; Available from:

5 Martin AB, Lassman D, Washington B, Catlin A. Growth in US health spending remained slow in 2010; health share of gross domestic product was unchanged from 2009. Health Aff (Millwood). 2012;31(1):208-19. Epub 2012/01/11.

6Any Lab Test Now! 2012 [cited 2012 October 31]; Available from:

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