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May 16, 2016

University of Pennsylvania study finds frustration in figuring out the cost of X-rays at hospitals

Private imaging centers more transparent than hospitals in a sample across Philly region

Do you want to know how much that X-ray at the hospital is going to cost you? Hold, please ...

Private imaging centers tend to be more upfront about the price of image scans than hospitals, and the average price is cheaper, according to the preliminary results of a University of Pennsylvania study.

"The costs, we found, at the stand-alone imaging centers were much more standardized and straightforward," said Dr. Mindy Yang Licurse, co-author of the study and a radiology resident at the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers called six hospitals and five private imaging centers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware to ask about the cost of three standard radiologic exams for an uninsured patient: a chest X-ray, a CT scan and an ultrasound.

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Four out of five calls to private imaging centers took less than 5 minutes and no one had to be transferred to another line. At hospitals, on the other hand, half the calls took 5 to 10 minutes and the other calls took longer. One unnamed hospital failed to answer three separate phone calls.

"It was definitely eye-opening from the perspective of a patient, especially an uninsured patient," said Licurse.

She called waiting on the phone at some hospitals "pretty frustrating," while her experience calling the private centers was "not frustrating at all."

One possible reason that private centers are more transparent about costs is that they are less complex than large-scale hospitals. In addition, a stand-alone center may have lower overhead costs than a large health system.

However, Licurse pointed out that hospitals may have an advantage over private centers because they can employ more specialized radiologists.

"You're going to have more sub-specialities at the larger academic centers," she said.

Prices also varied hugely — and if you don't shop around beforehand, you could end up spending almost four times as much as you have to for a simple ultrasound.

A chest X-ray might cost as low as $41 or as high as $285. The cost of a CT scan ranged from $437 to a whopping $2,239. The price range for an ultrasound quadrupled from $150 to $592 depending on where you went for the procedure.

"It just continues to open our eyes that pricing transparency, in general, does not exist," said Licurse.

The authors hope to include more hospitals in their sample before the study is peer-reviewed and published. Licurse presented the initial results this week at a meeting of the American College of Radiology.

To see the presentation, click here, and see "View Accepted Abstracts" and search for co-authors Mindy Licurse or William Boonn.

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