Many Americans say higher prices don't mean better health care

Price is often tied to quality, but many in a U.S. survey said that's not always the case for medical services.

Instead, most people said healthcare cost wasn't necessarily tied to quality.

That was actually good news to the researchers.

"Many organizations are developing health care price information tools for consumers," they write in Health Affairs. But if consumers knew what providers charged, would they avoid low-price care because they think price is associated with quality? Would they link higher prices with better care and automatically choose the most expensive options?

"It's really important to know how people are perceiving price and quality," said lead author Kathryn Phillips of the University of California, San Francisco. "If you don't know how they perceive price and quality then we don't know how they will use price information."

Phillips and her colleagues point out that governments, insurers and other companies are finding ways to make price and quality measures of health care more transparent.

"For other consumer goods there is this relationship so people assumed this was true for health care," Phillips told Reuters Health.

But most respondents to her team's nationwide survey said health price and quality are not related.

The proportion of people who said there is no link changed depending on how the question was worded, however.

For example, 71 percent said higher price is typically not a sign of better care. But 40 percent thought a doctor might be providing lower-quality care if he charged less than other doctors for a service.

"That suggests we need to think about how we describe things to consumers in order to help them understand what's being asked," said Phillips.

Depending on how questions were asked, 21 to 24 percent of respondents thought there were ties between health care cost and quality, and 8 to 16 percent were unsure.

People who had compared health care prices in the past were more likely to perceive a connection between price and quality than those who hadn't.

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These results might help researchers understand how to display price and quality information in a way that's helpful to consumers, Phillips said.

"We need to develop the right tools and policies to help consumers use this information," said Phillips. "You can't just assume you can put price information out there and people are going to be able to use it."

Future studies should focus on how people act based on information they're given about health care cost and quality, she said.

"It's one thing to say you would use information, but we need to know what people actually do," said Phillips.