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Shopping for health care: Have an 'awkward conversation' with your doctor

According to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Public Agenda, an estimated 56 percent of Americans have tried to find out how much a medical procedure would cost them – or their insurer - before getting care.

That number caught my attention, since conventional wisdom says Americans don't shop around for health care. It also raised a question for me: What about the other 44 percent? Why haven't they tried shopping for medical care?

Public Agenda's study provides one explanation: 50 percent of the people who have never checked a price are unsure how to do so.

That finding would probably not surprise David Newman, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Health Care Costs Institute. His group recently launched a website - called - that allows people to compare cost information for common health conditions and services.

Some tips

When we spoke on the phone recently, Newman explained that shopping for care is ridiculously challenging, even for people who know how to find that information.

People want to know, "what is it going to cost me to get particular services from particular providers in my location, given where I am in my insurance product, and how far into my deductible I've gone," he says, "and that requires a lot of information."

A major goal for us here at Impatient is to help you navigate the health insurance system. That means not just reporting that discovering the cost of  health care is valuable yet difficult; it also means empowering you as a medical shopper. 

Below are a few tips from Newman. Expect more advice from other experts in the weeks to come!

Have an 'awkward conversation'

Newman recently had to get some stitches taken out. So, he says, he called around to different clinics to inquire about prices. Even as a health care economist, he says, "it's an awkward conversation to have."

He acknowledges that providers and patients - himself included - need to become more comfortable with this type of conversation. Otherwise, he says, things get lost in communication: When a patient asks, "do I really need that surgery?" he or she often means, "can I afford that surgery and is it necessary?"

"They're trying to have a cost conversation and the physician is responding with a medical conversation," Newman says.

It's worth clarifying, because...

That talk could change your doctor's behavior

If your physician knows that you are conscious about costs, or have a high-deductible health plan, then he or she "will order tests appropriately, rather then ordering them all at once," Newman says.

"There are things we can do to make it more efficient to diagnose things," he says.

But it's not just up to your doctor to become more informed and engaged.

You play a role, too

The Health Care Cost Institute's joins a number of tools intended to make it easier for people to determine the cost of a procedure or medical service.

This LA Times article mentions other tools, including and And don't forget about #PriceCheck, KPCC's effort - with and KQED in San Francisco - to crowdsource the cost of certain medical procedures. You can enter your own cost information, and check out what other patients in your area have paid.

As opposed to other sites that compare costs by procedure code, Newman explains that breaks out costs by the steps along the way. Take knee pain: The site will provide cost estimates for the visits to the primary care doctor, the specialist, the physical therapist and possibly the surgeon.

All of this is to say: There are several tools out there that give people insight into what something might cost. They can't provide all of the information you need, but they can be a jumping off point. And simply doing the research can be half the battle.

"Engaged consumers in health care both lower costs and get better outcomes," Newman says.

That sounds like something to strive for.

Do you have questions about how to shop for health care? Do you have tips for other consumers on how to successfully shop across providers? Let us know in the comments section below, or e-mail us at