Study Suggests that Healthcare Price Transparency Tools Don’t Work

An article published last Tuesday (May 3rd, 2016) seems to indicate that healthcare price transparency tools do not have the intended impact on outpatient spending. The study, conducted by Sunita Desai, et al, followed implementation of a price comparison tool across two major employers across the United States. The resource, called the Truven Health Analytics Treatment Cost Calculator, allowed insured employees to compare prices at different clinics and providers for the same treatments. A control group of employees who did not have access to the comparison tool was included in the study.

While the study only surveyed two employers, the number of employees offered access to the cost calculator was about 150,000. The control group included approximately 300,000 employees.

The results may not be what you would expect. Only 10% of the employees who were offered the tool actually accessed it. 90% of employees studied did not open this health care cost comparison resource. Additionally, health care spending among employees actually increased from an average $507 annually to $550 for the year. Average out-of-pocket spending among the control group increased from $490 to $520, which means those employees offered this resource actually increased spending $18 more than their peers.

It is difficult to isolate variables which caused employees to be disinterested in the cost calculator, and we can’t be sure why costs didn’t decrease among those who did open the resource. A study author notes that more than 50% of searches were for medical expenses of more than $1,000. This could be an important factor since many employees would be paying the same deductible rate regardless of their chosen health care provider in this instance. The motivation to choose less expensive services isn’t as strong when an insurance provider is the primary beneficiary of savings, not the patient.




Desai S, Hatfield LA, Hicks AL, Chernew ME, Mehrotra A. Association Between Availability of a Price Transparency Tool and Outpatient Spending. JAMA. 2016;315(17):1874-1881. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.4288.