Consumers Want to Be More Engaged in Health Care Decisions, but Hesitate to Ask About Costs

By Elizabeth Borton
Recent survey results show that 9 out of 10 consumers want to be in control of their medical decisions or at least share in the decision making with their doctors. However, they are not so willing to discuss the cost of care. While more than 80 percent say they would be comfortable discussing costs with their doctor, fewer than 50 percent have done so. The gap may be because only a third of those surveyed feel they’d be comfortable shopping for better health care prices.

The results come from the spring 2014 Altarum Institute Survey of Consumer Health Care Opinions, which is conducted semi-annually to better understand consumer beliefs, practices and preferences regarding health care. The survey sampled 2,099 adults between the ages of 18 and 64 years old.

Key findings:

  • 9 out of 10 consumers want to play a part in their medical decisions. Only 7 percent want their doctor to take the lead role.
  • Consumers will seek out information about their symptoms or medical condition, but not on costs or quality. Nearly 70 percent reported they look up their symptoms online rather than going to the doctor first. And 64 percent research their condition rather than relying solely on their doctor. However, only two in five looked for data on the cost or quality of care. When choosing a health care provider, 72 percent said they rely on word-of-mouth recommendations.
  • A persistent gap exists between attitudes and actions pertaining to health care costs. As stated above, 80 percent say they would feel comfortable discussing costs with their doctor; however, fewer than 50 percent have done so.
  • Although consumers want to be involved in health care decisions, many let the doctor take charge of the visit. About three in five consumers either ask a few questions or wait for the doctor to take the lead and tell them what to do. Only about 41 percent arrive with a list of questions to make sure they get the answers they need. However, 7 out of 10 consumers will accept a doctor’s recommendation despite having their own doubts.

Keep the results of this survey in mind as you develop your benefits communications. Provide links to decision making, price transparency and health care quality tools. Take advantage of free resources, such as the Choosing Wisely® initiative, which provides comprehensive lists of questions to ask providers for a variety of conditions. Educate your employees about the importance of engaging in all aspects of their health care, including quality and costs. After all, the emerging health care model depends on consumers making choices to meet their needs

The author of the study, Wendy Lynch, director of Altarum’s Center for Consumer Choice in Health Care, sums it up best: “We can’t assume that one size fits all for consumers – there remain wide variations in skills, attitudes and behaviors. Tailoring the right support to the right person will be critical for patient-centered care.”