Doctors Clueless to the Cost of Common Medical Devices

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Every year in the U.S. more than $150 billion is spent on medical devices. Physicians are usually the ones choosing which devices get used by their patients, but new research suggests that most doctors don't know the associated costs. "For those of us thinking about the overall cost of health care, I think it's a big problem," says Dr. Kanu Okike, orthopedic surgeon and lead author of the study.

In a survey of 503 orthopedic surgeons from seven major medical institutions across the country, physicians were asked to estimate the cost of 13 commonly used medical devices. Answers within 20 percent of the exact price were considered correct. On average, residents estimated the right prices 17 percent of the time. Attending physicians did so 21 percent of the time. "I think we were all surprised to find how low implant cost knowledge was among ourselves and our colleagues," says Okike.

As it turns out, the cost of medical devices is difficult to grasp. Medical-device companies negotiate individual prices with every institution, and these often include non-disclosure agreements. Plus, there is little incentive for physicians to learn prices because it affects neither patient outcomes nor their own income.

For most patients, device costs don't  impact them in obvious ways because their insurance covers the implant and procedure. Still, the lack of price transparency may be adding to the problem of overtesting at the doctor's office and upping costs on the national level. "There's really no incentive for device companies to limits costs at all," says Okike. "In contrast, what we see is device prices skyrocketing in recent years." The result: extra costs tacked onto America's already lengthy health-care tab.