If transparency is the best disinfectant, casting sunlight upon the cost of care in hospitals across the United States will make the health care system itself healthier.
The Department of Health and Human Services has released open data that compares the billing for the 100 most common treatments and procedures performed at more than 3000 hospital in the U.S. The Medicare provider charge data shows significant variation within communies and across the country for the same procedures.
One hospital charged $8,000, another $38,000 — for the same condition. This data is enabling newspapers like the Washington Post to show people the actual costs of health care and create interactive features that enable people to search for individual hospitals and see how they compare. The New York Times explored the potential reasons behind wild disparities in billing at length today, from sicker patients to longer hospitalizations to higher labor costs.
These graphics and features are only the tip of the iceberg for this health data to be baked into health applications and services. Given the spiraling costs of health care in the U.S., this kind of data has been sorely lacking. Health apps and services based upon this kind of data hold the potential to change how society accesses the quality and delivery of care, controls costs, connects patients to one another, creates jobs, empowers care givers and cuts fraud.
Progress on making health information as useful as weather data has been gradual over the past five years, pushed an Open Government Directive in 2009. The catalyst for change today, however, appears to be a member of the media.
According to Steven Brill, this end to hospital bill secrecy was prompted, at least in part, by his mammoth special report on healthcare pricing practices in the March 4 issue of TIME Magazine. If so, it’s one of the most important outcomes of a single feature of investigative journalism in this new century.
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