What physicians can learn from fast-food restaurants and retail shops

Going to a physician is worse than going to a jeweler.  At a jeweler’s, it is commonly said that if you have to ask how much it costs, then you probably cannot afford it.  When seeing a physician, in all likelihood the costs of various tests are not completely known (until the bill arrives).  In contrast, when going to a fast-food restaurant or to most shops, the price is clearly posted and this helps make an informed decision.

Not surprisingly, a recent study from Johns Hopkins has shown that physicians order less tests when the fee for the test was displayed (JAMA Intern Med 2013; 173: 903-08).

This study randomly assigned 61 inpatient diagnostic laboratory tests to an “active” arm with the fee displayed or to a control arm with no fee displayed.  The displayed fee was based on the Medicare.  During a 6-month baseline period 208-2009, no fees were displayed.  allowable fee.  Pediatrics was one of the smallest hospital services involved in this study (0.8%); internal medicine service accounted for 52.1% and intensive care 26.6%.

Results: Rates of test ordering were reduced from 3.72 tests per patient-day in baseline period to 3.40 tests per patient-day in the intervention period (8.59% decrease).  In contrast, the control arm tests increased during the same period from 1.15 to 1.22 (5.64% increase).  The net result was $400,000 charge reduction in a 6-month period.

The study limitations included the practice setting where most orders are placed by residents. In addition, it is not known whether the reductions in testing led to any detrimental affects.

Trying to sort out the price of laboratory tests, imaging, and procedures for the individual are complicated by the unfathomable world of insurance contracting and discounts. Yet, providing the baseline cost, even without knowing what part insurance would cover, would be worthwhile.  Presumably, somebody is paying.

Bottomline: How many physicians know how much that blood test, the endoscopy, or the CT scan is going to cost? In medicine, physicians frequently discuss risk-benefit ratio.  I think an effort to understand the cost should be part of the equation as well.

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7 thoughts on “What physicians can learn from fast-food restaurants and retail shops

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