Prices And Health Care Quality: Many Consumers Don’t See A Link

Most consumers don’t believe the adage that “you get what you pay for” in health care, according to a new study.

The report in this month’s issue of the journal Health Affairs analyzed the responses of 2,010 adults to four questions about the relationship between health care prices and quality, such as “Would you say higher prices are typically a sign of better quality medical care or not?” and “If one doctor charged less than another doctor for the same service, would you think that the less expensive doctor is providing lower quality care or would you not think that?”

A majority of consumers — between 58 and 71 percent, depending on the question — didn’t associate price with quality, the study found.

For many consumer goods, price can be a good proxy for quality. But in health care, there is “limited evidence that higher prices are associated with higher quality or better health outcomes,” according to the study. The goal of many efforts to get price and quality information to consumers is to nudge people toward choosing “high-value” care that gives them the most effective care for the money.

The data provides useful information for health care organizations that are trying to understand how people make choices and developing consumer tools, said the study’s lead author, Kathryn Phillips, a professor of health economics and health services research at the University of California, San Francisco. For instance, it suggests that offering prices to consumers does not necessarily encourage them to use the most expensive doctors or hospitals.

“In order for these tools to work … we have to understand how people use this information,” said Phillips. She added, “You can’t just put price information out there and expect people to use it.”

value and price concept

The study authors, who included researchers at the firm Public Agenda, also noted that the concerns of the 21 to 24 percent of consumers who do associate price and quality must be addressed. The analysis found that people who had comparison shopped for care in the past were more likely to link higher prices with higher quality care.

“If you actually shop for care, and then you believe that price and quality are associated, you’re then going to avoid low-priced care,” she said, noting that more research needed to be done to understand whether there’s a causal relationship between the two.

This story was updated to note that several of the study authors come from the firm Public Agenda. 

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