By Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer
Published: 12/02/2013 04:07 PM EST on LiveScience
Patients often have a hard time finding out exactly what their medical care will cost them, and a new study finds that hospitals often are not able to provide price information for even simple procedures.
In the study, the researchers called 20 hospitals in the Philadelphia area, and asked how much it would cost to get an electrocardiogram (EKG) -- a simple test of the heart's electrical activity that's carried out the same way on all patients. The researchers later called up the same hospitals and asked how much it would cost to park at the hospital, as a test of whether hospitals could provide price information about anything over the phone.
Just three of the 20 hospitals gave a price for an EKG. And of the few that provided prices, the cost varied from $137 to $1,200. [10 Medical Myths That Just Won't Go Away]
In contrast, all but one hospital were able to provide information about the cost of parking. (For most hospitals, the price of parking was either free or discounted for hospital visitors.)
The findings agree with previous research showing that health care providers often cannot provide reasonable price estimates for their procedures. A study published earlier this year found that, out of more than 100 hospitals contacted by phone, fewer than half could provide a price estimate for the cost of a hip replacement.
In the new study, the researchers noted that hip replacements are complex procedures, with many elements that factor into cost, such as the type of implant used and how long the patient stays in the hospital after surgery. By contrast, an EKG is a fairly straightforward procedure, which should cost the about same for each patient, the researchers said. And, researchers added, the fact that hospitals readily provided information about parking shows they can answer questions about cost over the phone.
"Hospitals seem able to provide prices when they want to; yet for even basic medical services, prices remain opaque," the researchers wrote in a letter in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Without more transparency about cost, patients have no easy way to compare hospital prices, and without comparison shopping, there is not enough economic pressure to keep costs in check, said study researcher Dr. Joseph Bernstein, a clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
"Price information is hidden; and as long as it remains hidden, it is very unlikely that 'market pressure' can be counted on to drive prices down," Bernstein said. "Whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing, we guess, is simply a matter of whether you are a buyer or a seller," Bernstein said.
Although patients can ask their doctors directly about costs (rather than phoning the hospital) they're unlikely to get a good estimate of the full price, Bernstein said.
"At best, the doctor may be able to tell you what he or she gets paid, but for many medical procedures, the physicians' fee is a small sliver of the cost," Bernstein told LiveScience.
Bernstein conducted the study with his daughter, Jillian Bernstein, a high school student who helped design the study, collected all of the data and helped write the paper.
A 2012 study found that the cost of treating appendicitis varied by tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the hospital.