How to Find Bargains in Health Care

Here are some cost-saving ideas patients can take to their doctors for physicals, lab tests, and more

Vaccination photo

Vaccination photoMany of my patients are as concerned with costs as with the state of their health. Because of that, I work with them to make sure health care is both affordable and comprehensive. By far, the cheapest form of health care is prevention. So in my practice, I focus on intercepting disease or health issues as early as possible or preventing them altogether. It does not take much to be a little creative. Here are some cost-saving ideas patients can take to their doctors.

Physicals do not have be administered exactly every 12 months. There is nothing wrong with getting checkups every 15 to 18 months –– a process I call “straddling.” For instance, many of my patients will come in for physicals this fall, and if they are healthy, we will not schedule their next physical until early 2011. Yet only 13 to 16 months will transpire between physicals, allowing the patient to “straddle” two calendar years –– from late 2009 to early 2011. They get 2010 off, and they won’t have to deal with paying out to cover their deductible in that year. This is especially helpful to individuals with high deductibles.

Lab tests can run in the hundreds of dollars. Again, with some thought and research, there are ways to save. For instance, for patients who are covering costs for bloodwork, we use the services of HealthCheckUSA, a nationwide company that offers discounted lab services at a savings of sometimes more than 50 percent. A complete health profile blood test valued at $530 at traditional labs costs only $200 at HealthCheck.

Another way to save on bloodwork is to have all basic tests run before your physical. That way, your doctor will have the test results in hand for the appointment, saving both of you the time and expense of a follow-up visit to review test results.

Your doctor can also shop around for lower costs. For tests like chest x-rays, which I always recommend for physicals, I refer patients to outpatient radiology facilities in San Antonio like South Texas Radiology, O’Neill and Associates or M&S Imaging San Antonio, where x-rays and a radiologist’s interpretation of them can be as low as $60. That’s considerably cheaper than at a hospital, where x-rays alone can run $125, and the radiologist’s interpretation could be $25 to $35 more.

These facilities are often cheaper for other tests as well. For patients who can pay with cash at the time of the test, many facilities will discount their fees. Ask your doctor for recommendations and do not be shy about asking for cost considerations.

For women 40 and up, I recommend pelvic sonograms, which are noninvasive, safe and are cost effective. I ask the radiologist to examine the pelvis and provide additional views of the kidneys, which can give us valuable information about other organs. This type of sonogram has led to the early diagnosis of liver and kidney cancers as well as ovarian cancer well before the cancers could even manifest. Insurance usually covers pelvic sonograms, especially if a woman has symptoms in the pelvic region.

I recommend colon cancer screening with a 60-inch scope for patients in their 40s. However, most insurance covers only flexible sigmoidoscopies (24-inch scope) before age 50; that test is cheaper than a full colonoscopy because it is performed without sedation in the specialist’s office rather than a surgical center. I get around this by asking the colon specialist to use the longer scope in the under-50 patients. With the longer scope, he can perform a more thorough exam. The cost of around $150 is much less than $800-plus for the full colonoscopy.

Another area where patients can find bargains is in prescriptions. Remember to ask your doctor to consider generics when prescribing medications.

For more ideas about savings in health care, check out a PriceDoc, a Web site that helps you shop around for the best pricing on medical services in your area. Angie’s List can also be a great source for information and referrals. Forbes published an excellent article in August, “How to Cut Your Doctor’s Bills.”

If costs are a concern, don’t hesitate to have a frank talk with your doctor. Remember, your doctor is your advocate. He can shop around for cost savings and refer you to labs he uses regularly for discounts. Many doctors will often lower their own fees to their patients to help make healthcare affordable. After all, his goal is the same as yours: to ensure your health.

The ideal physician should strive to keep patients well and out of his office rather than sick and in his office.

Author: Gregory Jackson, M.D.

Gregory M. Jackson, M.D. operates a family practice in San Antonio and is the medical director for Texas-based American Physicians Insurance Company, a physician-owned business that provides medical malpractice insurance to five thousand physicians in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

4 thoughts on “How to Find Bargains in Health Care”

  1. Dr. Jackson,

    Thanks for the plug about PriceDoc, we’re glad you agree with what we’re doing!

    Also, I really like the idea of getting my blood-work done prior to scheduling my physical. I’m assuming it’s easier to get to the technicians who take your blood than it is to get to the actual doctors, so when you actually see your him/her it’s almost like killing 2 birds with one stone… thanks for that!

    Brad Crowell

  2. Thanks so much for this article, Dr. Jackson! I am among the many independent contractors out here who have, somewhere in their family, a ‘pre-existing condition’–which these days even includes high cholesterol–that makes us ineligible for affordable health insurance without the ability to buy as part of a group. Your article shows how we can control the costs of a more regular physical, probably resulting in more preventive health care. Thanks again for writing it, and putting it here where I can come back to it to get the San Antonio lab names and other contacts you mentioned.

  3. This is tangentially related. Here is a guide to buying individual health insurance in Texas .

    Pardon me for the naive question. How often should one get a physical? I am 43 and healthy. The last time I got a physical (3 years ago), my health insurance claimed it was 100% covered. Later, I learned that one of the tests the doctor performed was NOT covered, costing me $250. These kinds of episodes makes me avoid having to go to the doctor for anything routine.

  4. I’ll add my thanks for this.

    For people without insurance, and thus without a primary doctor to consult or who can act as an advocate, can these resources and suggestions still be helpful?

    Thanks again for the information.

Comments are closed.