insurance

Rating health care online

Highlights
  • The price differences can be significant.
  • Use reviews to complement what you learn, but don't rely on them.
  • While all these sites can help, they're not perfect.

If you're like most people, you're taking more responsibility for and picking up more of the tab for your health care. A growing number of Web sites can assist your efforts by showing how the price and quality of care offered by different providers measures up.

1. Insurer sites

Many health insurers have member sites, says Carlton Doty, vice president and research director with Forrester Research Inc. While their capabilities vary, most include educational content as well as information on average prices for different procedures. If you're insured, you'll want to start your research here because the information should be most relevant to your situation, Doty says.

Aetna Navigator, the member site of Aetna Inc., for instance, lets members in more than 30 states compare prices charged by different health care providers. For example, the overall cost of a colonoscopy at one surgery center ran $1,200 to $1,800. The same procedure at a nearby hospital was $2,240 to $2,800.

The figures are based on two years of claims data, from which any extreme outliers have been removed, says Wayne Gowdy, senior product manager with Aetna. The site also offers information on the number of procedures performed at a hospital or clinic over a time period, as well as quality ratings. Aetna also offers a tool that lets members compare drug prices.

2. Government Web sites

A number of states, along with the federal government, host Web sites that provide price and/or quality information. For example, Wisconsin PricePoint lets residents of America's Dairyland search more than 100 procedures at different hospitals, urgent care centers and emergency rooms. Use of the site is free.

For each facility and procedure, the site lists the range of prices charged, as well as the number of procedures completed, and the average and median length of stay. The figures are based on data the hospitals are required to provide to the government, says Joe Kachelski, PricePoint's vice president. While he and his staff double-check numbers that look out of whack, they don't eliminate outliers.

Again, the price differences can be significant. Case in point: Treating an ear infection at one urgent care center runs about $111. It's $450 at the emergency room down the street.

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3. Independent Web sites

A number of companies also operate sites. Healthgrades.com, for instance, assigns quality ratings of one, three or five stars to around 5,000 hospitals across the United States, using data the hospitals submit to the Federal or state governments.

To calculate the ratings, Healthgrades' team adjusts the information to account for differences in patient population, says vice president Sarah Loughran. For example, one hospital may serve a largely elderly population, and age usually affects patient outcomes.

Then, Loughran and her staff will look at data on survival and complication rates, among other factors. Based on this, they'll run the numbers to determine whether a particular hospital, given its patient population, performed as expected (three stars); better than expected (five stars); or worse than expected (one star). Most information is free. The Web site also provides information on physicians and nursing homes.

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