Monday, February 11, 2008

Health Care Market Takes to the Web

In America, the market rules — except when it comes to health care choices. A Minnesota company named Carol is trying to change that with a new "care marketplace" website which allows free comparison shopping for health care services. "We want to let consumers define value," said Tony Miller, Carol's founder and chief executive officer. "We don't have care competition in the marketplace today."

While the ability to compare services, credentials and costs with or without insurance is a groundbreaking move, it must be noted that these comparisons can only be made amongst providers who are members of the network.

In an Associated Press article entitled "Minn. Web Site Creates Health Market," Elizabeth Dunbar explains the site's features:

Instead of going through a list of doctors or clinics, users tell the site what they're looking for by clicking on parts of the body.

For instance, if a consumer clicked on "entire body," then "annual exam," and chose a routine physical for women age 40-64, the results page would show six different options ranging from $207 to $335. After selecting a number of options, consumers can click "compare" and see exactly what each exam would entail. They can also read a description of the doctor or clinic's philosophy and link to ratings by MN Community Measurement, a nonprofit that measures health care performance in Minnesota.

The combination of provider ratings and the ability to calculate out of pocket expenses brings health care more in line with traditional markets. While this is cause for enthusiasm for many, the endeavor does have its critics, according to Dunbar:

The free site, which went live in January, generates revenue from health care providers who become "tenants" on the site. When a consumer sets up an appointment with a clinic or doctor on, the provider pays the site a fee.

[...] Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said the site is nothing more than advertising, and he hoped it wouldn't catch on.

"Among physicians, there's a belief that health care is too critical ... to be left to the usual marketplace," he said.

[...] Elizabeth Boehm, an analyst with Forrester Research who studies the health care customer's experience [...] was skeptical of the site's prospects because many people's choices are limited by their HMO.

"(Price is) just not what drives people to make their health care choices," Boehm said. "The challenge for a site like this is that while conceptually it's good ... the reality is there are only a small group of customers looking for that."

While Boehm may have a point, there are many people in the United States for whom cost is what drives their health care decisions. There are 47 million Americans lacking health insurance, according to a National Coalition on Health Care report, many of them at or near the poverty line. It would seem that tools of this nature could make a significant difference for a large segment of our population. currently only serves the Twin Cities, but there are plans to expand into other markets during 2008.

SOURCE: "Minn. Web Site Creates Health Market" 02/10/08

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