Cost: The Dominant US Health Care Issue

In the past, many patients were concerned about simply having access to health care. In today’s robust medical environment, however, patients’ most pressing issue isn’t finding care any more, but being able to manage their medical bills. According to Forbes, medical technology is only going to continue driving hospital spending and require the health care community to provide a higher quality of care and charge more because of it. Most hospitals are concentrating on the first half of the challenge – ensuring the patient has a positive experience. Recent research, however, revealed patients are increasingly concerned about being able to afford their medical payments even if the quality of care is improving.

Three 2013 studies examined the impact of health care costs on patients and the medical community in the era of consumer-driven health care. While two of the studies looked at the issue of higher health care costs from patients’ point of view, one dived into physicians’ unique concerns. In essence, patients and physicians alike feel the burden of rising health care costs.

Happy with care, not with price
The first study, conducted by the Massachusetts Medical Society, found an overwhelming majority of state residents feel health care affordability is the medical community’s most urgent health care issue. The 2013 MMS Health Care Public Opinion Survey received responses from 417 Massachusetts residents, and 78 percent of participants said the state’s biggest health care challenge was the cost of care. While patients are satisfied with health care quality, 65 percent said their medical bills were higher this year than in 2012.

A new Gallup poll asked 1,039 Americans what they feel is the nation’s top health problem. The No. 1 response was cost of care, beating out access to care, which took the No. 2 spot. Obesity was cited as No. 3, cancer as No. 4 and government interference as No. 5. The medical community is aware that health care affordability is becoming a central issue for many patients, but some are still unsure of how to fix the problem.

Another study, led by Mayo Clinic researchers, surveyed 2,500 physicians and found the majority feel it is their responsibility to address patients’ health care cost concerns. However, the majority of physicians said they focus on quality of care instead. Eighty-five percent of physicians responded that “trying to contain costs is the responsibility of every physician,” and more than three-quarters said they understand the prices of the medical treatments and procedures they recommend to patients.

“Physicians feel stuck in a difficult position,” said Jon Tilburt, lead author of the Mayo Clinic study. “Despite their sense of responsibility to address health care costs, physicians consistently express a commitment to the best interests of patients even when it is expensive.”

Clear billing and patient convenience may help alleviate cost concerns
While larger external forces, such as lab fees or pharmaceutical costs, may dictate pricing, health systems can make it easier on patients to understand their medical bills and feel better about what they will have to pay out of pocket.

Many physicians assume if patients know the cost of care upfront, they will choose the least expensive option or skip care completely. Yet University of Michigan researchers say when patients are more involved in the decision-making process and understand the costs of each available option, they are able to make the right decision. Many patients actually end up choosing the more expensive option after they receive a cost estimation.

Health systems can ease patient cost concerns and help physicians focus on providing great care by using patient friendly billing. Improving patient collections even as health care costs skyrocket doesn’t have to be a barrier to patient satisfaction. By providing cost estimation upfront in a format that is easy to understand, patients become more informed about their health care bills. When patients are able to budget effectively right from the beginning, they can plan their care and their payments with peace of mind.