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Reduced Office Visit Prices Can Result in Big Savings for Patients

December 20th, 2016

BOSTON — While no one is suggesting you run Blue Light specials, don’t be surprised if the prices you charge for office visits become a bigger factor in attracting patients.

A new study published in the journal Health Affairs suggests significant savings for patients who choose primary care doctors with low office visit prices. In fact, Harvard Medical School researchers suggest that office visit costs could be a reliable indicator of what a patient will pay for a wide range of services and procedures.

The issue is that, with high-copays and other expenses, even a relatively small difference in office visit price — $26 — could mean hundreds of dollars in annual savings for patients, the study notes. Patients receiving care from primary care practices with lower-than-average office visit prices spent $690 less per year, compared with patients who saw higher-priced physicians.

Yet, the research detected no significant difference in the kind and amount of services received by the two groups of patients. Patients who sought out physicians who charged lower prices for office visits appeared to get the same level of care, but also paid less for almost every other outpatient service they received.

"Because of the tremendous growth in high-deductible health plans, Americans are being forced to think about prices when they choose where to get care," said study lead author Ateev Mehrotra, MD, associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School and a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "Our data suggest that looking at the price of your doctor's office visit is a good place to start. Choosing a lower-priced primary care doctor could save someone a lot of money."

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For the study, researchers used the 2010 Ingenix insurance database, which contains data from 27 national employers, grouping primary care doctors into high, average, and low price tiers based on the cost of an office visit. They then examined the spending of those physicians’ patients, looking at how many services such as drugs and emergency care visits patients used and how much the services cost.

The median price for an established patient’s office visit was $60 among low-price physicians and $86 among high-price physicians, with price calculated as reimbursement plus out-of-pocket spending. Patients of low-price physicians also received, on average, relatively low-price lab tests, imaging, and other procedures.

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