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Study Finds Barriers to Comparison Shopping for Health Services

February 6, 2007 -- Even when patients spend their own money on health care, there is little shopping based on cost or quality, according to a study the Center for Studying Health System Change released Tuesday.

While markets for self-pay medical procedures such as LASIK and cosmetic surgery are often noted as examples of consumer comparison shopping, significant barriers to effective shopping for other medical services exist, with consumers often instead relying on word-of-mouth recommendations to choose providers.

The study, published as a Web exclusive in the journal Health Affairs and funded by the California HealthCare Foundation, examines the market for LASIK, a surgical procedure conducted to reduce a patient's dependency on glasses or contact lenses, and self-pay markets for in vitro fertilization, cosmetic rhinoplasty, and dental crowns. In those markets, consumer shopping was more difficult and less prevalent than in the LASIK market, for reasons ranging from urgency in some cases to the cost of obtaining multiple price quotes, the study found.

In an accompanying Health Affairs article focused on shopping for price in medical care, Center for Studying Health System Change President Paul Ginsburg noted that current efforts to increase price transparency for health services often downplay "the complexity of decisions about medical care, patients' dependence on physicians for guidance about appropriate services and the need for information on quality."

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