Physicians need to be more cost aware

I had lunch with my old college roommate last week. She’s a new grandmother and was telling me about her daughter who lives in another state.  Her daughter is self pay because she and her husband own a restaurant and have opted out of insurance due to the cost.  She received her hospital bill in the mail and she was surprised at the cost of some of the items.  As she looked through her bill, she saw some items that she wasn’t even aware that she used.  In my county, 20% of our population is uninsured and these charges are important.

What if this was her scenario?

Doctor:  Hi Ms. Kim, so glad to see you.  I see that you are here to have your labor induced.  Welcome to our hospital.  We are going to use something to help get your cervix ready.  You have 2 choices – we have something that costs $12.00 and we have something that costs $810.  They work pretty similarly.  I kind of like the $810.00 one, but you’re paying for it. Which one would you like?

Patient:  Gee Dr. Greene.  I think I would like the $12.00 one if it’s all the same.  You see, I’m self employed and we can’t afford health insurance so we’re self pay. I would prefer to pay $12 over $810.00.

Doctor:  That’s great.  I’ll see you in the morning on the labor floor.

Next day:  The labor and delivery goes well and a healthy baby boy is born with Apgars of 9/9.

Doctor:  Now Ms. Kim, we’re going to draw a little test on your baby’s cord blood to make sure he is as healthy as he seems.  His fetal heart rate looked good during labor and his Apgars are great, but sometimes we just like to do things to “make sure”.  It only costs $225.00 for you, but it’s a good test for us doctors to do.  It just makes us feel better and it’s what we have always done here at our hospital.

Patient:  Gee, Dr. Greene, the baby is crying and looks really good.   If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to pass on that.  I can probably use that $225.00 to buy him diapers and food and such.  But thanks for thinking of me.

Doctor:  That’s great Ms. Kim.  Now we’re going to send you over to postpartum.  You had a few stitches and we’ll have pain medicine and ice packs and some other lotions that you can use.  You can ask for whatever you want.  We have witch hazel pads, a nice spray lotion and some foam.  The foam costs $155.00 and we use over 200 of these a month around here so I think it’s a good product.  We’ll bring all of them to you.  That way you’ll have all of them even if you don’t need them.

Patient: Gee Dr. Greene, I think I’ll try some ice and Advil first. I did that with my first baby and I was fine. Like I said, I have to pay for all of this myself and I really don’t want anything that I don’t really need.

Doctor:  Sure, Ms. Kim.  We’re here to provide the best care ever.

The scenario above is pretty much true – all except for the fact that we physicians do not typically know the costs of these items and we often do not consider cost when we write an order.

In Greenville County, where I live, nearly half of our residents are either uninsured or have insurance but have to postpone medical care because of cost. Most of the uninsured are employed, but many aren’t offered insurance at work, while others have access to coverage but can’t afford it.

I am working on a project to increase cost awareness among OB/GYN physicians.  Through this project, I believe that we can identify products, services, and tests that are unnecessary, and if eliminated, will not decrease the quality of care. I know that I can do better.  And maybe, just maybe, Ms. Kim will leave the hospital with more money to spend on her baby.

Lauren Demosthenes is obstetrician-gynecologist. This article originally appeared in Costs of Care.

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