Cost of routine imaging more transparent than other healthcare services

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Prices for noncontrast head CT vary widely among all imaging facilities but are readily available for most top-tier academic and private radiology practices, according to study results published online April 1 in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

In an effort to combat problems associated with excessive costs in the medical industry, recent U.S. healthcare policy initiatives have called for price transparency to better inform patients and keep providers’ prices competitive, according to Aaron Paul, MD, of Harvard Medical School, and colleagues. “These legislative initiatives suggest that consumers are currently far removed from the costs of their health care services,” wrote Paul et al. “Recent studies have supported this by demonstrating how difficult it is to obtain accurate price information for commonly used medical services.”

Paul and his team set out to assess the availability of pricing details for routine imaging procedures at academic and private imaging facilities. To do so, the research team identified 14 of the top U.S. academic hospitals based on rankings from U.S. News & World Report, as well as 14 of the top private radiology practices nationwide using annual rankings from Radiology Business Journal, and contacted them via telephone to ascertain cash pricing for noncontrast head CT procedures.

Their results showed that while the actual cost of the procedures varied drastically, the availability of pricing information was common among the radiology practices studied. Overall, the cost of routine imaging procedures is easier to obtain than the cost of non-imaging healthcare services, the researchers found. “We found that 78 percent of upper-tier academic hospitals and 79 percent of private practices were able to provide price estimates for a noncontrast head CT,” wrote Paul et al. “This result compares favorably with those obtained in prior studies involving surgical and medical specialties.”

Despite their findings, Paul and his team believe more research is necessary to get a clearer picture of just how patient-friendly pricing availability is for imaging services. “We as a specialty must commit ourselves to cost-effectiveness research in this new environment of increased price transparency,” the researchers wrote. “An interesting future study would be to extend this investigation by requesting responses in writing and using actual patients to see if the quoted prices later proved accurate.”