Shopping for an ECG? Good luck

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Hospitals appear to be more than willing to share price information with healthcare consumers, if the item of interest is a parking spot. But divulging costs on items such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) is another thing.

Joseph Bernstein, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Jillian Bernstein, a Haverford High School student, tested the willingness and ability of hospitals in Philadelphia to answer telephone queries about pricing. They applied the methodology of a study published March 25 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Those authors assessed hospital price transparency for a hip replacement and reported it was difficult to obtain cost information and that cost varied widely.

The Bernstein pair reasoned that hospitals may be reluctant to offer upfront costs for hip replacement surgery because they might face increased expenses if physicians decided they need to use a more expensive item or keep the patient hospitalized. An ECG, on the other hand, has a uniform price.

Jillian Bernstein called 20 hospitals in Philadelphia to obtain the price of an ECG that would not be reimbursed through insurance. She then called the hospitals again to get information on the cost of parking at the facility where ECGs are performed.

Three hospitals provided price information for the ECG, with costs of $1,200, $600 and $137. Nineteen shared parking prices, 10 of which were free or discounted for visitors. The Bernsteins published their results online Dec. 2 in a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Hospitals seem able to provide prices when they want to; yet for even basic medical services, prices remain opaque,” they wrote. “Accordingly, medical insurance payment schemes that promote concern about prices without a commensurate increase in price transparency are apt to be ineffective.”