Despite recent regulations to ensure consumers have access to cost information about health insurance coverage and healthcare services, most Americans are still not exhibiting shopping behaviors when it comes to their healthcare, according to new research.
A brief survey released last week from AKASA, a healthcare AI company, suggests that the promise of price transparency to nudge consumers to compare prices and seek cost savings remains largely unrealized.
Two-thirds (64%) of the more than 2,000 Americans surveyed said they have never tried to find the price of a healthcare service. Compared to 36% overall who have researched healthcare prices, younger adults between ages 18 and 34 were more likely than older adults (55+) to do so—55% versus 27%, respectively.
People with high-deductible health plans, who typically pay more in out-of-pocket costs than others, were also more likely to research healthcare prices (41%), as were people on individual rather than group health insurance plans (43%).
Other subgroups that were more likely to have tried finding a healthcare price include people earning $80,000 or more per year (42% of whom had looked for healthcare prices) and people who use social media channels such as Twitter (44%), LinkedIn (43%), Pinterest (41%), Instagram (42%), Snapchat (44%), Reddit (47%), and TikTok (52%).
Despite knowing that people don’t often proactively research pricing for healthcare services, Amy Raymond, vice president of revenue cycle operations at AKASA, said she was still shocked to see that a majority of survey respondents had never sought out any healthcare pricing information at all.
“There is clearly a lot more work to be done on both the payer and provider side to ensure consumers know this information is available to them in the first place and then make it more convenient and easier to understand for them,” Raymond said.
Other studies have shown that people rarely use price transparency tools even when they have access to such tools. A 2017 study followed more than 70,000 families who were offered a healthcare cost comparison tool and found that only 11% used the tool at least once; just 1% used it at least three times. Younger people, people living in areas with greater healthcare pricing variation, people with high deductibles, and people with moderate medical spending were more likely to use the tool.
Consumer behavior doesn’t necessarily match consumer intentions. In the AKASA survey, 58% of respondents said that knowing the price of healthcare services ahead of time would encourage them to shop around. People with college degrees or post-graduate education were more likely to say that knowing the price would encourage them to shop—66% and 63%, respectively—as were people on high-deductible health plans (66%).
Even if consumers did use price transparency tools, that behavior may not drive cost savings as intended. A 2021 study showed that online advertising effectively increased consumers’ awareness about a price transparency website, resulting in a 600% increase in site visits. But the study also found that people who used the price transparency tool did not necessarily choose lower-cost healthcare providers.
This disconnect between consumers’ desire for pricing information and the lack of adoption or true behavior change may reflect the limitations of price transparency tools on their own.
“Price transparency is important, but it’s one piece of a larger effort to improve the patient financial experience,” Raymond said. “The impact of the patient financial experience is often overlooked and underestimated because we often focus on the clinical experience. Health systems, in particular, have an opportunity to transform operations into patient advocacy functions.”
The implementation of price transparency tools to date has not necessarily met consumer expectations, even in retail pharmacy where shopping around for the best price is more common and theoretically easier than in more complex health services.
Raymond said that the way in which healthcare prices are presented is not always useful or helpful for average healthcare consumers.
“Price transparency tools have been around for a while, but that doesn’t make the information easy to discover or easy to digest,” Raymond said. “There are so many variables that inform pricing—who their provider is, who their insurance carrier is, the nature of the services they’re trying to research—which can feel very overwhelming. So the process to shop around just feels hard before they’ve even tried.”
Still, Raymond is undaunted by the slow uptake of price transparency tools.
“The general trends of healthcare consumerism and shifting toward improving the patient experience is clearly already underway,” she said. “The status quo is no longer acceptable. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make these shifts. Those who are proactive can lead the way and chart the course for how price transparency can be done well.”
She said she hopes the AKASA survey findings will encourage more consumers to be proactive and become their own advocates.
“All of us have a role to play here,” Raymond said. “We need to take a more active role to shop around now more pricing information is becoming public and hold organizations accountable when that information isn’t available in a manner that is accessible and easy for anyone to understand.”