New Social Networking Site Allows Users To Compare Health Care Costs

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WBUR has launched an online social network for those concerned about rising health care costs. It's called Healthcare Savvy, and it is a community of patients who want to shop for care.

The site is for everybody — whether you have insurance or not. It offers guidance about costs and how to make wise decisions about where and when to get care.

WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger created Healthcare Savvy and she joined Morning Edition Monday to talk about it.

Deborah Becker: How is this social networking site going to work?

Martha Bebinger: Picture a Facebook group of patients who want to make more informed choices about where they go for care. We want people to start asking: Am I getting the care I need? Is it the best quality? How does it compare on price?

We know more and more patients are asking these questions as they move into insurance plans that shift more costs to the patients, like the high-deductible plans, for instance. Healthcare Savvy is place to share your stories about shopping for care and get tips on how to ask about costs. There are a bunch of websites people can scan that collect cost and quality information. Anyone can read the site, but you'll have to register to post your own stories.

But, beyond co-payments, there are no real price tags on treatments or tests patients often get. And you were telling me a story before about how you decided to shop for a mammogram. What did you find out?

It took nine, maybe 10 phone calls to get three prices. The range I got was between $500 and a little over $900. One hospital sent me to financial counseling, saying that that's the only place they could talk about prices — in the context of a counselor who might help me deal with whatever issues I was wrestling with.

I think what patients will find on the website is a wide range of prices and experiences. We have one woman on the site right now who looked at the bill for a skin cream the doctor told her might help — he wasn't sure — it was $1,000 a month. She said, "No thanks."

There's a gentleman on there who has a high-deductible co-plan, who walks into the doctor's office every time and says, "Look, this is my money, so please let's talk about how we're going to spend it." He gets a lot of really great low-tech solutions from doctors.

I have three kids who have had a variety of injuries — they all play sports. We go back to emergency room after emergency room, we have more air casts and crutches and things in my house, and it's wasteful. I tell them, "I don't need these, I have a closet full of these things at home," and yet we keep coming back to them again and again.

Do you think it would help if patients were more aware of these kinds of things, that it would help reduce some of that waste, or the discrepancy of costs?

Yes. There's a lot of thinking out there that if consumers become more engaged — if patients start to act like consumers — they will start to trigger changes in the marketplace that will lower costs. So this is really a new territory for a lot of us.

But would doctors, in a way, almost feel threatened if patients were challenging them on the cost aspect of care?

There is a lot of fear among patients about that — about challenging a doctor — and some doctors aren't comfortable talking about cost, they don't think that it should be part of the conversation.

If your doctor doesn't want to talk about it, we don't suggest creating a confrontational situation. But we also do hear from a lot of doctors who are frustrated themselves, about the way pricing and payments and such in the health care system work, and they want the information about what they're doing, as much as patients do.

And why are we at WBUR doing this?

We're doing this because the debate about what to do about rising health care costs is happening all over the state. But it's happening mostly in high-level executive boardrooms, or at windowless hearing rooms at the State House. We know that it's affecting patients, but we aren't hearing enough of those stories. So this is a place where patients will share their stories, get tips from each other about what to do, and we'll be able to tap into that and understand how that part of this whole debate is changing.


This program aired on August 15, 2011.

Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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