The Journal of the American Medical Association recently showcased the results from a study that was conducted by the San Francisco-based healthcare information company, Castlight Health, which offers cloud-based comparison tools to employees of companies that are self-insured. The results of the study by Castlight Health reaffirms data that shows many consumers tend to opt for the least expensive provider, if they have access to information such as fees for medical tests.


More and more companies are now choosing high-deductible plans in order to shift more of the cost of healthcare to employees. Research by big companies, such as Mercer, shows that consumer-directed health plans have risen more than 2 percent in less than two years. The data reveals that potentially two-thirds of large employers will be making use of this type of health plan within the next three years.

Let’s take a look at the price difference between PET/CT body scans, which can amount to up to $2,246 more depending on which medical center the patient uses. While this is an extreme example, these types of variations come down to the type of arrangements between the insurers and health care providers. Since the jump in price does not always mean better quality, many believe there is a clear need for transparency tools.

Over a three-year period, Castlight Health experts scrutinized the medical complaints of over 500,000 employees from 18 different companies. They took a closer look at specific areas such as imaging, which includes MRI and CT scans, laboratory tests, as well as patients visiting the offices of primary care doctors or specialists. What they found is that most of the people who were able to compare prices before they received any care, ended up with a lower claim payment in comparison to the people who did not or could not do so. While the difference was only 1 percent for doctor visits, it ramped up to a 13 percent difference for imaging and 14 percent for the lab tests such as cholesterol levels. One study’s authors pointed out that smaller price variations resulted in the lower savings for office visits.

One of the many questions raised by this groundbreaking study is why people would go through all the extra trouble to find a doctor that is just a bit less expensive. It’s believed According to Jennifer Schneider, who heads the Castlight analytics team and authored the study, people continued to opt for whatever provider had the lowest cost.

Because transparency tools are still new and not widespread, it’s not surprising that few people searched. In fact, the ratio of people who did not search to those who did is more than 3 to 1. Percentage wise, almost 27 percent of doctor offices matched a search, while image claims were at 7 percent and lab tests claims stood at only 6 percent. This, once again, highlights why further studies are needed to determine exactly what causes a patient to not follow up a search when seeking medical care.

By performing more peer-review studies, Castlight and others in the field should be able to build a solid case for why price comparison tools can be such valuable assets to patients. The authors of the study believe that focusing on greater transparency will also put more pressure on providers to offer their services at more competitive prices.

Making it easier for people to compare prices can make a big impact on the medical world. For one, more competitive prices will provide access to cheaper health care and may, in turn, bring health-insurance premiums down.