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A comparison-shopping site for health care

Gregory Warner May 1, 2012
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A comparison-shopping site for health care

Gregory Warner May 1, 2012
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Kai Ryssdal: If you’re in the market for, say, a smartphone or a new dishwasher or some running shoes, price comparisons are pretty easy. Hit the Google, pull up some charts, and shop away.

But that knee surgery or hip replacement or appendectomy you might need? Not so easy. And that’s just how the health care industry likes it. We often have no idea what we’re paying for health care — or largely what we’re getting for our money — because there’s no where to go to find out. But some new startups are aiming to change that.

Gregory Warner reports from the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY.


Gregory Warner: One thing we know about health care from countless studies: Price has almost nothing to do with quality. A fancy-pants colonoscopy may be no different than the cheap one.

Peter Isaacson: A colonoscopy or an MRI or an X-ray will cost 10 times as much for the exact same quality a mere two or three blocks down the road.

Peter Isaacson is chief marketing officer for Castlight. It’s one of a half-dozen startups aimed at helping you comparison shop for doctors. Get it — cast, light? Here’s how it works: Castlight gets hundreds of thousands of anonymous insurance claims from its clients, large companies like Safeway and Honeywell; then it crunches that data to figure out which doctors are cheapest and have the best safety records.

Isaacson: And the secret sauce for Castlight is that we tease those apart, to really isolate what the costs were for specific procedures with specific doctors.

Doctors don’t publish price lists and because of their deals with insurers doctors may not even know what patients get charged. Silicon Valley is gaga for the concept. Today Castlight announced an additional $100 million in venture capital.

Tom Emerick is a consultant who used to manage health plans for Wal-Mart and BP. He says there’s a limit to comparing doctors like dishwashers. It’s hard to know who gave the best diagnosis.

Tom Emerick: Those kinds of things don’t show up in claims data.

He says would you rather comparison shop for the best back surgeon based on value? Or find a doctor who can tell you don’t need surgery after all?

In Philadelphia, I’m Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

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