The ambiguity of a hospital charge

It all started while out to dinner with a couple of my fellow Brigham/Massachusetts General Hospital OB/Gyn residents. We were discussing our favorite old TV shows and one fellow resident’s love of The Price Is Right with Bob Barker. After talking about the game show, a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “Why can’t we play The Price is Right with hospital charges to our patients?”

With further discussion we realized that none of us knew the hospital charge, or the cost to our patients for routine workups we routinely order in our gynecology clinic. We really had no idea.

After asking around, I realized that I was not alone in my lack of knowledge, or the idea to play The Price is Right with hospital charges. A couple of years prior the Massachusetts General Hospital Internal Medicine residents had played a similar game with the goal to create awareness of the costs associated with routine workups.

There is very little data on how much residents (and attending) physicians know about the costs of what they prescribe, of what changes practice patterns. I had an upcoming conference for the gynecology residents and faculty around the Christmas Holiday and figured that this might be a good venue.

In first thinking about what costs to use, I consulted my esteemed colleague, Neel Shah. He directed me to use hospital charges which are standardized across patients and not specific to the insurance company or patient. I wanted to use Brigham and Women’s specific charges, with local comparisons. Because I wanted it to be pertinent to every day care, I decided to use case based scenarios with 3 of my clinic patients, a hybrid with Choose Your Own Adventure.

I started with our gynecology clinic practice manager (after she overheard me discussing where to find these numbers). She had some information on the visits to our gynecology clinic and hospital charges for the technical end for procedures. But, I soon realized that no one really knows how the hospital charge value is arrived upon, or if and how it changes year to year. And while she could tell me the charge for a RN intramuscular injection fee, she told me to contact the pharmacy for the drug charge. After asking around, I resorted to calling the individual labs/departments to find the appropriate costs. People were often willing to tell me as few people even ask. I called the pharmacy, hematology lab, microbiology lab, emergency room billing, hospital billing, the nurse practice manager for the family planning clinic who coordinates with the nurse in charge on labor and delivery, and a separate operating room billing manager. Because OR costs are determined in increments of 15 min, they are provider and case specific.

We choose a recent hysteroscopy that I had done with an attending who does many hysteroscopies on an average case, and she gave the line item hospital charge breakdown. The microbiology manger prefaced her costs with, “Do you have a pencil and are you sitting down, because you will be blown away!”

The ambiguity of the hospital charge was most apparent when discussing abortion. This is one of the few procedures that many insurances do not cover, so the hospital charge is paramount to self pay patients. The hospital based family planning clinic uses charges from 2004 that are currently being debated. It is unclear if there are separate anesthesia charges, or if they are included in the hospital charge. And because the quotes are outdated, it was difficult to tell what the hospital charge in 2011 is. There is also significant variance in performing the same procedure- dilation and evacuation (or curettage) in the hospital based clinic, the main operating room, in a procedure room on labor and delivery, or in an affiliated private outpatient facility. All of these charges affect our counseling and referral of self-pay patients, and the affordability of these procedures.

The game went over very well with participation and wild guessing from attendings and residents alike. I am not sure if and how practice patterns will or should change, but perhaps knowledge of the systemic charges will better inform our counseling of patients, and consideration of their resources. And, I did pause before obtaining an unneeded gonorrhea/chlamydia culture the day afterwards with my newfound knowledge.

Shilpa Iyer is an obstetrics-gynecology resident.

Costs of Care has launched its annual 2011 healthcare essay contest, with the goal of expanding the national discourse on the role of doctors, nurses, and other care providers in controlling healthcare costs.  The contest will solicit stories from care providers and patients across the nation that illustrate everyday opportunities to curb unnecessary and even harmful health care spending on a grassroots level. 

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  • http://twitter.com/medbillmistakes Robin Giangrande

    As a Medical Billing Advocate, I am constantly looking at hospital charges that vary dramatically between facilities for the same thing (and this is not because of insurance carrier contracts). The document that controls what a hospital charges is called the Chargemaster and is information very closely held by the industry. My theory is that the bigger the secret seems, the more important or telling the information is. It is very important for doctors to understand how much care costs and how much variance there is in the marketplace. This is not only educational and eye-opening, but can be a great service to their patients – and will be appreciated by same.

  • Chris OhMD

    One of the biggest problems in healthcare is exactly what is presented here – lack of price transparency from both the provider and the patient. How are we going to contain healthcare costs when both the provider and patient have no idea what the procedures cost? The pharmaceuticals, device manufacturers and insurers have have done their part in contributing to this “price uncertainty” which makes it very difficult to deliver care by making prices overly complicated. I’m looking forward to the day when I can tell my patient exactly how much they will be billed for the visit and how much their medications will cost.

  • Anonymous

    Were it that simple ninquem.  I checked out the site you gave.  It is UK. There are charges - but I couldn’t just do a few clicks to find them.  They do the sales pitch first.  There “about us” tab states they are a charity (what ever that means in the UK), not connected to the government but do take private insurance. 

    The closest one might come to real costs that could then be translated into real charges would be the VA.  They are more electronically up to date than most healthcare systems that do exist within our large Hodgepodge.  Maybe it has been done.