For the Savvy Shopper

You know how they keep coming up with all sorts of apps to help us comparison shop?  It’s become something of a competitive sport, apparently. We heard a report yesterday indicating that bricks-and-mortar stores are facing the onslaught of price-scanning bargain hunters in a variety of ways: some are simply giving in, providing internet access on their sales floors.  Others are maintaining both physical and digital locations, and still others are finding ingenious ways to scramble their bar codes and spoil scanned pictures in hopes of thwarting the would-be smart shoppers with their endless online resources.

The same thing – in moderation, of course – is starting to happen in the health care provider world.  For a long time, consumers could not help but conclude that expensive health care providers were better than lower cost providers.  You got what you paid for, period.  We had precious few reliable resources available to help us be better informed about what we were buying.  The highly specialized language featured in most health insurance policies did not help, nor did the reams of confusing benefit summaries and obtuse plan descriptions sent along with those multi-page policies.  We ended up without the services we most needed on one hand, while paying for a bunch of  services we would never use on the other.

One of the more useful aspects of recent health reform legislation has been to regulate and clean up – and clear up – those masses of paperwork and marketing materials provided to us by health care providers.  There are still kinks to work out, of course.  It’s not perfect.  But we need to make apple-to-apple decisions.  Both cost and quality matter.  We shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.  And maybe now we don’t have to.

Studies have consistently shown that informed consumers make better choices.  There is all sorts of information available online about prices, quality, the opinions of others, healthcare ‘report cards’  and reviews, and it’s getting easier and easier to find that information.  Public records from federal, state and private entities give a health care shopper a good point of departure to start learning more about (and comparing) local health care providers.

For example, there is a national employer organization called the Leapfrog Group which surveys more than 1,000 hospitals every year to find out how they stand on safety and quality standards.  Check out their public records to see how different hospitals compare when providing care for weight-loss surgery, heart attacks or pneumonia.

The AHRQ can also help with timely, accurate information about the cost and quality of care.  They support a national learning network for community quality collaboratives, which are also called chartered value exchanges.  The network was formed in 2007 and is made up of 24 collaboratives in 22 states, and most sponsor public records on physicians and hospitals at the local level.

Hospital Compare is an online resource for consumers from the Medicare program and the Hospital Quality Alliance.  It can help with information about whether a hospital offers medically sound care for heart attacks, heart failure or pneumonia.  It should be noted that hospitals report this information on a voluntary basis, but their Medicare payments are higher if they cooperate.  They usually do.

Here are some resources and links to get you started:

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