Do hospital brain MRI online prices correlate with telephone quotes?

Do U.S. hospitals' prices for brain MRI exams match prices for the same service quoted by telephone? Perhaps not, according to a study published September 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The results indicate that patients may not be getting good information about healthcare services, wrote a team led by Merina Thomas of the University of Texas Medical Branch John Sealy School of Medicine in Galveston.

"These findings suggest that at U.S. hospitals, price estimates for shoppable services posted online correlate poorly with prices obtained via phone … and suggest that patients will continue to face barriers to comparison shopping," the group noted.

In 2021, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) mandated that hospitals make prices for "shoppable" healthcare services available to consumers. Most hospitals that comply with this mandate post service costs online, but it's unclear how much this information matches quotes patients get by telephone, Thomas and colleagues explained.

To investigate the issue, they conducted a study between August and October 2022 that compared 60 hospitals' online prices for brain MRI with prices offered to a cadre of "secret shoppers" who called imaging departments for a price estimate. The hospitals were categorized as top-ranked (20), safety-net (20), and non-top-ranked, non-safety-net (20); the majority of the top-ranked facilities provided both online and telephone prices.

Costs varied between online and telephone quoted prices for brain MRI, with a complete match between online and telephone prices in only 19% of the total of 60 hospitals surveyed, the team reported.

Brain MRI prices among top-ranked hospitals by type of price quote
Type Amount
Online, mean (range) $3,623 ($481 to $7,307)
Phone, mean (range) $4,138 ($1,800 to $8,920)
Commercial insurance, mean (standard deviation) $2,779 (1,433)

"[The] finding that a secret shopper calling a hospital was frequently given a telephone price that was substantially different from the online price posted by the same hospital is revealing," the team wrote.

 The findings underscore the need for even more transparency when it comes to the cost of healthcare services, and hospitals "need to substantially improve the integration of their online pricing data with frontline staff who interact with patients," according to the researchers.

 "[Our] results demonstrate hospitals' continued problems in knowing and communicating their prices for specific services," they concluded. "The findings also highlight the … challenges for uninsured patients and others who attempt to comparison shop for health care." 

The complete study can be found here.

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