For almost everything we buy, one of our first questions is always -- how much does this cost? Except, when it comes to health care, especially surgery. With surgery, we usually have no idea what we will pay. KPRC 2 is looking into how to shop for the best surgery price and the homework you should do before deciding the best doctor for you.
Dad shops surgery prices
“In every big-ticket purchase decision we make, we would never walk into it blindly,” Mike Wall, dad from Lake Jackson, said. “How am I supposed to make a purchasing decision as a consumer, especially when you’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars?”
Several years ago, Mike learned his teenage, soccer star daughter, Natalie, would need surgery to repair a hole in her eardrum.
“I got this super-bad ear infection, and it would throb. I couldn’t sleep, it was leaking, it was awful,” said Natalie Wall, Brazoswood High School soccer player.
But like millions of other Texans, Mike does not have health insurance, so he immediately started trying to shop around to get his daughter the best possible care at the best price.
“I started making phone calls to different hospitals in the Houston area. Most of them would not give me any type of estimate or quote or anything at all,” he explained.
Finally, Mike got one hospital to give him a rough estimate. They told him it would be about $30,000 to 40,000 for the ear surgery.
“I knew there had to be a better option out there,” said Mike.
Free market surgery prices
That’s when Mike discovered a place called Texas Free Market Surgery in Austin. It’s just one of a whole new breed of surgical centers nationwide that doesn’t take insurance or deal with insurance companies, but instead, bills patients directly and posts their prices upfront and online. Mike got Natalie the surgery she needed at a fraction of the price a local hospital quoted him.
“I went online and looked up the tympanoplasty,” explains Mike.
He found the surgery price of $5,250.
“So, this is a huge win for the American consumers of health care,” said Cynthia Fisher, founder of Patients Rights Advocate.org.
Fisher is the founder of Patients Rights Advocate.org, a group fighting to force all hospitals to provide clear, upfront pricing. In fact, a brand new law has passed aimed at doing just that.
“There is a new law in place that started Jan. 1 this year, that all patients have the right to know prices before we get care by hospitals having to post online their discounted cash prices,” Fisher said.
To check to see if your hospital system is posting prices, search the hospital’s website for a price list or price-estimator tool. If that doesn’t work, call the hospital and ask where to find their price list for procedures.
Mike found the best place for their family and Natalie had a successful surgery.
“Surgery went perfect. Everything went as smoothly as possible. I can hear. I have no more ear infections. Haven’t had a problem with my ears since,” Natalie said.
The Free Market Medical Association has grown enough to establish local chapters. You can search for the one near you here.
Surgery isn’t the only thing for which you can now shop easier. The new Hospital Price Transparency Rule means hospitals must release pricing information before providing service. Hospitals are now required to publicly disclose standard charges, including the low and high prices for each.
Websites that allow you to search health care costs
- Turquoise Health - allows you to simply enter the procedure and zip code and find the best prices.
- Free Market Medical Association - FMMA.org - this website allows you to find other surgical centers that are posting prices upfront and online.
- HealthCost - shop simply for prices on procedures, imaging, and more.
- ClearHealthCosts.com - This allows you to search the database, but also includes the most popular surgeries and prices from patients.
4 steps for finding the best surgeon
While it is now easier to find prices for common surgeries and other hospital procedures, you can still do your homework on finding the best surgeon.
1. Check credentials
You want to make sure the surgeon is board-certified. You can also check to see if the surgeon has a history of malpractice claims. You can look up the medical license of a doctor on the State of Texas Medical Board website.
(KPRC 2 Investigates recently looked into local doctors who are in big trouble with the Texas Medical Board, including one Baytown doctor who is set to report to prison but is still seeing patients.)
2. Get referrals
See if your primary care doctor has a referral list. You can then call each surgeon’s office and ask for a consult appointment to meet and interview the doctor.
3. Read patient reviews
4. Check out the hospital
You should consider the hospital where the surgeon works. There are dozens of people who work with the surgeon daily. You can check hospital survival rates and even look at safety protocols. The Hospital Safety Grade network has a large database to get you started.