The first wave of health pricing information is on its way to consumers today as Healthline launches its TreatmentSearch online tool, which includes a Cost Estimator tab. The cost data is a bit sparse now, and based on national and regional averages. But “This is just a beta and we have lots more cost data we will be adding, including how much each insurer will pay and drug costs from pharmacies,” West Shell, Healthline’s CEO told me.
With a major player like Healthline making this move, others are sure to follow. That’s great news for consumers.
Healthline also plans to publish doctor’s fees. “Finding out treatment costs and physician’s fees is the front end of the spear. That’s where consumers can start making decisions to drive down their costs.” Shell says. Asked if he expects patients to try bargaining over fees, he says, “Sure, why should doctors be the only sector in the U.S. economy that is not subject to price pressure?” He argues that physicians who are truly outstanding “Can charge whatever they like until the market says it is too much.”
Ratings for doctors will also be added to the site, but rather than setting up their own system, Healthline will aggregate other established rating sites. Doctors could also use the Healthline site to attract more patients. Shell hopes physicians will make sure their on-site bios are complete and expects some will even get creative about adding information such as recent publications or difficult-to-treat diseases that they specialize in.
It’s a compelling vision and doesn’t seem far fetched as health care costs continue to rise, consumer purchasing power wanes, and questions about the quality of care remain.
Healthline’s Approach and Tool Kit
Healthline is one of the frontrunners in online health information. Along with TreatmentSearch, today the company also launched DocSearch, which lets patients find physicians according to geographic location, specialty, years of experience, gender, hospital affiliation and languages spoken. These are accessible at the Healthline site along with previously released SymptomSearch, DrugSearch, and Learning Centers.
Unlike traditional web search engines, which retrieve everything from textbook chapters to misleading advertisement for phony medicines, Healthline searches are more selective. The company has partnered with many health publishers, including Adam, Natural Standard, and StayWell. Healthline also regularly searches these “partner sites” for new content and ranks the information it retrieves. Information is sorted using semantic search technology, a kind of “next generation” approach where the relationships between search terms are first defined and mapped out.
One of the nicest features of Healthline is the way the data is presented. Treatments, for example, are grouped as diagnostic tests, medical procedures, surgical procedures and self-care. I find that most Healthline searches turn up some useless articles, but not as many as I find with typical search engines. Healthline is also very easy to use and I think the semantic search does help to “throw the net wide” from the start, instead of having to sit and figure out the half-dozen or so terms you could use to find out about any particular medical condition. It’s a good tool for patients, as long as the information is kept up-to-date. I think health care professionals or people with a bit of medical knowledge will prefer other tools, such as Pub Med and Up to Date for most of their searches — neither of which includes health cost data for now.
The company makes money through advertising, and there is plenty of it. Besides peppering its own site with ads, Healthline sells a targeted advertising service. I know many people get up in arms about direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs, but so far its legal and if consumers aren’t going to pay for health information, they’ll have to tolerate ads. At least when it’s targeted this way you don’t have to see ads for erectile dysfunction while you’re looking up migraine headache. Shell says advertisers like that aspect too.
Will Consumers Use It?
The most important thing is that all this information is finally becoming accessible to patients, so they can make better informed decisions. Hopefully, consumers are waking up and realizing the data is there and starting to use it.
Recent surveys suggest consumers are not using doctor rating sites very much. Shell says the early doctor rating systems covered too few physicians and were mostly negative. “One person has a bad experience with a doctor, and that doesn’t tell you much,” he says.
It’s going to come down to how valuable the data is to people. If a search can really deliver a doctor or a treatment just as good as the alternative, but cheaper, patients will dig in and start using the tools.