Doctor, how much will this cost?

When I was young, newly married, and in graduate school, I needed to have some wisdom teeth extracted. I went to a dentist near my home, and he took x-rays and explained what all needed to be done for the extraction. I had little money at the time and I asked, necessarily, how much it would all cost. He gave an exasperated sigh and told me we’d talk about that later. We wouldn’t, because I asked for my x-rays and left without scheduling the extraction.

Through family, I managed to find a dentist who was willing to do the extraction for a set Stethoscopeprice with the caveat that one always runs the risk of unexpected and unavoidable complications running up the costs. In the latter event, this dentist, knowing my family, agreed to work on a reasonable repayment plan. The extraction went well, I was able to pay for it, and we all went on about our business.

The remarkable part of this story is that I never again had a frank discussion with any healthcare provider regarding the cost of treatment, though I have often been shocked by the prices of tests, prescriptions, and other services.

Ideally, I think when doctors (or other providers) tell patients about a treatment’s risks, side effects, and benefits they should also talk about the treatment’s cost and whether there are cheaper alternatives. Sometimes, a cheaper alternative is just as efficacious as the expensive choice the doctor is prescribing. In this way, discussions of cost can be woven seamlessly into the informed consent process.

Of course, adding a discussion of price to the informed consent process will add another burden for doctors, who are already feeling pressured for time. In a column in the New York Times, cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar points out that reduced payments to doctors have forced doctors to take on more patients to maintain their income. As a result, doctors spend even less time talking to patients and feel even more rushed to move on to the next patient. Adding a discussion of cost to informed consent will only create more pressure for the doctor to hurry through each patient encounter.

Further, it is difficult for doctors to inform patients of something they don’t know themselves, and doctors are frequently unaware of the cost of medications and other services they prescribe or order. A 2007 paper by G. Michael Allan, Joel Lexchin, and Natasha Wiebe found that “Physicians’ awareness of the cost of therapeutics is poor. With only 31% of estimates within 20% or 25% of the true drug cost and the median estimate 243% away from the true cost, many of the estimates appear to be wild guesses.” If physicians knew the cost of their prescriptions, they might prescribe differently in many cases, so it would be a huge step forward if both physicians and patients could be better informed about healthcare prices.

Physician Peter Ubel wrote a blog post about his experience with getting a prescription from his own doctor that was $200, much more than he had anticipated. When Ubel spoke with his doctor, the prescribing physician admitted he had no idea the prescription would cost so much. Ubel asks whether we should expect doctors to research costs before prescribing. It may be too much of a burden to ask doctors to do more research, but this may be a case where the move to electronic health records (EHRs) may benefit patients directly.

If an EHR retains patient insurance information, then it should be able to calculate the cost of any treatment stored in database and automatically display it to the doctor when the prescription is entered. With a really expansive system, it might even show the cost of alternative treatments. The doctor could then easily present the patient with each treatment and its cost.

I have serious reservations about the growth of EHRs and massive databases of personal information that is not easily controlled or limited; however, if we have EHRs anyway, we might as well use them to save money for patients. In the meantime, I think we will all do well to bring up the issue of cost with healthcare providers at every available opportunity. By doing so, we will make our providers aware that cost is an important consideration in prescribing, and we may also slowly work our way toward much greater transparency.


On the 49th anniversary of Medicare, let’s work to expand it

Medicare was born on July 30, 1965 primarily to help provide medical insurance for Americans over 65. As of 2012, Medicare covered more than 50 million people and it has succeeded in preventing many people from falling into extreme poverty in their old age. And of the 50 million covered, about 8.5 million are people with disabilities, who would not be insurable through private insurance plans.

Despite a few arguments, from the for-profit insurance industry, Medicare is financially more efficient that public plans (see a discussion here ). Even pro-industry arguments tend to highlight some of the advantages of Medicare. In this defense by Merrill Matthews for The Council for Affordable Health Insurance  of private sector insurance, for example, the author says, “Executives and boards of directors consider, debate and decide company policy; in Medicare that function is often handled by Congress and itmedicare for alls legislative staff. “ The authors point out that the time of Congress is also of some value, but the cost is borne by taxpayers. Of course, the time spent by private-sector administrator is also borne by those who enroll in their plans, but private-sector administrators are not accountable to taxpayers in the same way members of Congress are expected to be. The CAHI defense also points out that private insurance companies must raise money and include the cost of raising capital in their administrative costs estimates while Medicare does not include the cost of raising capital as that is done through Congress.

The real difference, according to Matthews’ argument, though, is in the amount of money spent on patients. Matthews points out that private insurance companies spend more money on administration because “they scrutinize individual provider claims much more closely, challenge questionable procedures and determine whether, in the company’s opinion, a claim is valid or needs to be reconsidered.” In other words, private insurers spend a lot more money denying claims. If you’ve ever experienced a major illness or injury, you have been bombarded with paperwork explaining why you will have to pay your own way with no reimbursement from your insurance company.

Matthews said that in 2003, Medicare spent $6,600 per patient paying claims, while private insurance paid only $2,700 per patient. This hits consumers in two ways. First, if you’ve already received treatment and the bill is denied, you are on the hook for payment. Second, the price of your premium includes the salaries of the administrators who are committed to denying your claims, so you are paying them to refuse payment for your treatment. If you think it is good that your claim was denied, leaving you with enormous medical bills after a serious illness, private insurance is the way to go. If you want to have some peace of mind that your bills will be covered, expansion of Medicare is certainly the best choice.

Nonetheless, it is true that Medicare payments need to be lowered. The costs of Medicare payments reflect the costs of for-profit healthcare. The costs can be lowered by enabling Medicare to negotiate the costs of medicine (drugs, hospital equipment, and other medical technology). The costs of common medical procedures vary wildly from city to city in the United States (to see a comparison of four services, look here). By bringing more transparency to healthcare costs, Medicare can pay providers what is reasonable, rather than what is currently possible. While many say that markets create competition that will lower prices, this is simply not the case. The reason it isn’t the case should be obvious to anyone: patients who need healthcare are in no position to shop around. After I had knee surgery in 2001, I had complications that some blamed on my choice of doctor. When asked why I chose this particular surgeon, I said, honestly, that I lay in bed with a shattered tibia, calling doctors for appointments. The doctor I “chose” was the seventeenth doctor I called. No, I did not carefully research his credentials, prices, or hospital admitting privileges. Even at that, I had to wait two days with a shattered tibia to get an appointment. This is the reality of for-profit healthcare and for-profit insurance. It is a nightmare. While Medicare may not be a blissful dream, it leaves fewer patients with healthcare induced night terrors.

Many people seem to have a false sense of security with their employer-sponsored health insurance. In the first place, they overestimate how much of their care will be paid for by the insurance. Then they seem to forget that any serious illness or accident that makes them unable to work will also make them unable to maintain their insurance coverage. The fact that your employer provides insurance today is no guarantee that it will be there when you need it. Further, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employers may reduce employees or hours to avoid providing healthcare, as discussed in this article in the Wall Street Journal. And finally, under the ACA may further restrict patient choices of providers, as noted in this piece in the New York Times.

Should anyone be at the mercy of employers for healthcare? Should small-business owners and the self-employed have to shoulder a disproportionate burden for healthcare? Medicare for All is an equitable solution that is fair to everyone and enables us all to pursue our vocations according to our dreams and talents rather than our fear of medical bankruptcy. The time to expand Medicare was 49 years ago, but let’s do it now. Support H.R. 676.

Additional Reading: For more resources on this topic, see the Public Health and Social Justice website.

Patient Story: University Student Faces Surgery in Wuhan, China

I am hoping that Ethics Beyond Compliance can become a place for patients and caregivers to share their stories of medicine, medical research, illness, and loss. The following post is by a university student in Wuhan, China who had to undergo surgery and spend 12 days in the hospital (for less than $1,000). Here is her story.

Wuhan, China

In the end of May 2014, after few really spicy meals, I had dysentery. A few days later, things became worse, so I went to the eighth hospital of Wuhan, which specializes in anorectal diseases.

Knowing that I needed surgery, I felt very nervous and insecure. Then my dad asked one of our relatives, who is also a proctologist, about this hospital and the doctors here. My relative recommended a doctor for me. I went to see the doctor, and he agreed with the former doctor. At first he said he would perform surgery the day after but later told me he had some other business for the day after, so we had to do the operation that day, which was children’s day, 1st of June.

They gave me an enema first, and then had me do a lot of tests such as blood test, allergy test and so on. Later, a nurse came in and gave me a tranquilizer to prepare for the operation. Then another nurse came in to lead me to the operation room. I signed some paper for anesthesia. After a while, there was an angry nurse for the operation who, I guess, frowned on my skirt. I said “sorry,” but she kept frowning on me, which made me very upset and a little bit angry. During the preparation, I asked the angry nurse why she seemed so unhappy, and she said it was just work, nothing else. Then she tried to give me injection. But somehow she had no luck. She gave me three injections in the wrong place, which hurt me a lot. I tried to calm her and said, “It’s okay, don’t be nervous,” but the truth is deep down I felt I could not bear one more try. My hands were very swollen. Finally, the fourth went okay. During the injection a man gave me anesthesia. I could not feel my legs, and then the doctor came and asked me to kneel on my front.

I could not tell what was going on there, but I could hear what they said. The angry nurse checked my wound and said, “Ew, that’s big wound.” Then the doctor said he didn’t expect such a big one either. And he said he would show me my files later, but I said “No, thank you.” Somehow another nurse came in, made some comments and flirted with the doctor. Then another doctor in, also judged my wound, and said something that was not very nice. I swallowed it all in. I felt so assaulted and humiliated, but I could not do anything. Finally, it was over. They used the bed to send me back to my room.

I guess it’s because of the anesthesia that I still could not feel much. Only tired, exhausted. After having some fluid, I fell asleep. I remember around 3 o’clock, I was awoken by severe pain. I could not even cry loud, but somehow my aunt heard me. She woke up the caregiver, whom we hired that day. The caregiver came and helped me to pee; I felt like peeing but owing to the anesthesia and the pain, I found it difficult. After three painful hours, I finally did it. With the help of two painkillers the caregiver gave me, I fell asleep again.

Every time I woke up, I was in great pain. Still I had four more days of injections. The younger nurse tried to give me an injection but she failed and asked an elder nurse; however, the elder nurse gave me even more pain. Then there came a middle-aged nurse who smiled a lot at me even though she felt nervous while giving me the injection. I think she is the first nurse I met in the hospital who made me feel comfortable.

My dad checked on me from time to time, told me the doctor asked for more money for this operation because of my large wound. I checked the bills and found mistakes. I told one nurse, and she said she would check on it but later, and then I got no response.

I spent 12 days in the hospital, and the whole operation cost me 5,618 RMB ($905.00) not including the caregiver.