Dicker With Your Doc? Not So Fast…

How to Haggle With Your Doctor” was the title of a recent Business section column in The New York Times.  This is one of many similar directives to the public in magazines, TV and Websites urging us to lower the high price of our health care by going  mano a mano with our physicians about the price of tests they recommend and the drugs they prescribe.  Such articles provide simple, commonsense recommendations about how to respond to the urgency many of us feel — insured or uninsured — to reduce our health care expenses.

With unemployment at 9.4 percent and more than 50 million Americans lacking any or adequate health insurance, I understand the impulse of editors to assign this story. Plus, “of all the providers of medical care, physicians are most important in determining how much will be spent,” notes Arnold Relman in the New York Review of Books, since they make all the allocation decisions that “call on the facilities and services of all the other providers of care —hospitals, imaging centers, diagnostic laboratories, manufacturers of drugs and equipment.” The prices charged by these institutions vary widely and therein lies the opportunity to find some savings.

But coming off a wave of big-buck spending related to my recent diagnosis of stomach cancer, I am acutely aware that haggling with my doctor about the costs of my care is neither simple nor is it a matter of common sense.  Rather, it is a matter of 1) understanding in detail both the opportunities and limitations related to my health insurance; 2) being persistent in information seeking, since price lists are often difficult to track down and comparisons of quality (accuracy) of laboratories and testing facilities are nonexistent; 3) using available information and my judgment to weigh options; 4) the willingness to risk the rejection of my request by my provider and perhaps antagonize her and 5) overcoming my pride and asking to be treated well while seeking the best value for my money.

The fact that health care is not a real “market” for patients is old news, although perhaps not to those journalists who blithely recommend that we set off to haggle our way to cheaper care.  And it is irrelevant news to the vast majority of the public for whom discussing cost with their doctor is anathema.  Many people would not consider doing so;, first, because they may not know that the prices of drugs and tests vary so much by provider/source; second, because they may feel uncomfortable mentioning money concerns; and third, because the public has long held the view that more expensive care is better care and in seeking to pay less, one may be tacitly agreeing to accept less effective care.

Objectively, none of these factors should influence a person’s ability to ask straightforwardly: “I wonder if there is a way you could help me reduce the price of my care?”  But our relationship with our providers is rarely objective.  We come to them when we are sick and vulnerable.  We put our lives in their hands.  We trust them to do the best for us.  And we value deeply their efforts.  Haggle about the price of this commitment?  Many of us will not, even if the alternatives are bankruptcy or going without care.

So what should we make of this rash of recommendations to enlist our providers in reducing the price of care?

I, for one, want to know whether similar imprecations are aimed at doctors and other providers so that if we must ask for help to pay less, they are able to respond with useful strategies and without hostility.  All health plans remind doctors of policies that aim to constrain costs by providing incentives to physicians who deliver care that is evidence-based, for example, or dictating the priorities of drugs prescribed for certain treatments.  But our requests are not policy-based.  They relate to the use of specific facilities, dosages and frequencies.  Other than providers in federally qualified health centers, many of whom have well-honed skills in squeezing the most care for from each dollar, most providers are largely unfamiliar with the prices of the services, tests and drugs they recommend.

Will this advice to ask for a break on the price of care exert demand that results in more transparency about cost and quality?  Perhaps, but only if many more people cast off their traditional passivity with regard to their care, overcome their reluctance to discuss money, and invest the time required to tracking down the elusive price and quality information that is required.

The frequency of the recommendation to haggle with one’s doctor may reassure the public that discussing the price of care will apply pressure to meaningfully reduce what we pay.  But “This drug /that test is too expensive for me.  Can you do me a favor and spend time with me to find lower price solutions without compromising quality?” is not an approach that will lead to a widespread and enduring solution.

While we are waiting for the enactment of federal and state policies that would ensure that each of us can afford the care we need, what private policies and public regulations about transparency and price would help us out here?  What would ensure that those of us who are willing to take on the tasks of trying to cut a better deal for our care with our providers have the information and guidance to do so?

Jessie Gruman, PhD, is the founder and president of the Washington, DC -based Center for Advancing Health. She is the author of Aftershock: What to Do When You or Someone you Love is Diagnosed with a Devastating Diagnosis. She blogs regularly on the Prepared Patient Forum.

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5 replies »

  1. Everyone Knows You can’t deal with the doctor without killing the parisitic Growth attached to the doctor. You know that until Insurance companies no longer feed on fear and dictate Behavior. This subject matter has no footing in Doctor/Patient Relationships.
    Contracts and Gag orders interfer with medical costs and the fact that competition is far removed from the affilate industries. Actual costs are nominal,and charges exceed real market values by 100,000%. Couple that with bare essentials of care. You have the largest money sucking milkfest only second to the military industrial complex. God you people are Niave!

  2. I agree that it is difficult to haggle with your doctor since it interferes with the doctor patient relationship. I also agree with Casey that there is little transparency in pricing. There are many different prices for the same service and most of them are secret.
    I do think that most people have been insulated from health care prices due to insurance but I don’t agree that most patients expect unlimited services at no cost. Most of the decisions on care choices are not driven by patients; they are driven by doctors who recommend tests and procedures.
    Patients would love to be put in touch with prices and be able to discuss these with their doctor but they don’t have access to the prices and the doctors are not interested in discussing the cost of care.

  3. I would suggest medicolegal reform. If a doctor joins in the crusade to cut costs on your care by not ordering a given test, and then it turns out that the test in question could have detected a problem in time to prevent disease progression or a particular complication, then the doctor has opened herself to litigation. Perhaps the joint decision between doctor and patient to reduce costs should come with a waiver, signed by both, absolving the physician from any liability incurred through the omission or modification of those costly tests and procedures.

  4. The headline had me leaping to respond – however, reading Dr. Gruman’s piece had me shifting my landing zone.
    I completely agree that attempting to negotiate cost while in the process of dealing with a “really big disease” (thank you, Firesign Theater) will at best arrest forward progress on treatment as options are evaluated, at worst compromise both care and outcome.
    However, I think that transparency in cost is one of the health care segments most critically in need of reform. US patients have, over 50+ years in a system that’s fostered an other-people’s-money attitude, come to the conclusion that they want everything, including 3rd & 4th opinions; they want to “ask their doctor about” everything, and get it; they want the best treatment in the world…oh, and BTW, they don’t want to pay for it.
    Realigning the healthcare payment system to put patients more in touch with the cost of their choices, decisions, etc. is the path to real reform.

  5. Where’s the funny guy with the dorky hat? Haven’t seen any posts from him lately.