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The Sunnier Side of India’s Free Market Medical Imaging

Medical Imaging India

What would medical care be like in a genuine free market?

Nobel laureates in economics have opposing views. But does India have the answer? There, healthcare has a strong private sector: patients usually pay directly and the insurance industry is just emerging.

Milton Friedman believed that markets would work just fine in healthcare. Kenneth Arrow was not so optimistic. In his much cited opus, Arrow singled uncertainty as the key factor which distinguishes medical care from other goods and services. Uncertainty means that one doesn’t know when and how much healthcare one is going to need. Not quite the same as shopping for cereal in Waitrose.

George Akerlof felt that asymmetric information, i.e. when one side knows far more about the product, could be problematic for quality.

In Akerlof’s hypothetical market, “Market for Lemons,” which takes the example of used cars, there are “peaches” (good cars) and “lemons” (low quality cars). Buyers can’t distinguish between peaches and lemons, but know lemons exist and so offer a price that’s too low for peaches. Sellers who, of course, know their peaches and lemons, remove good cars and retain bad cars. Process continues, and there’s a downward spiral, with market progressively enriched with lemons.

Asymmetric information in a free market could lead to fall in quality and market failure. There’s asymmetric information in healthcare when buying insurance; people are more inclined to purchase when sick. Also, when the physician knows more about quality of product and its need than the patient.Continue reading…

Physicians Aren’t Driving Up Health Care Costs

Recent interest in variability of cost for medical procedures is justified and long overdue. In an article in the New York Times on June 2, 2013, “The $2.7 Trillion Medical Bill,” Elizabeth Rosenthal writes from the point of view of a patient who has received a bill for colonoscopy. She then researches costs of the procedure in a number of markets in the U.S., finding a range of pricing from an average of $1,185 to a high of $8,577. There is an implication within this article that “doctors” are charging these prices. The truth is that physicians are often pawns in much larger negotiations among other entities.

While charges for procedures performed in an office setting or practice-owned ambulatory surgical center (ASC) are largely under the control of physicians, many of the highest prices come from hospital owned facilities — an area that is not at all controlled by physicians.

I called the lead negotiator for payor contracts at my institution and asked him about price variability for colonoscopy. It was clear from my conversation that the current arguments about colonoscopy price variation miss some key components. We need to better explore the true drivers of price variation.Continue reading…