Despite some progress in making employees smarter consumers of health care, pockets of resistance remain, sometimes in surprising places. A recent survey of more than one thousand American adults by FAIR Health showed considerable insensitivity to the cost of physician-provided medical services, among other things.

“Even though this is the age of big data and smartphones, not all consumers are taking full advantage of easily accessible information that can inform critical decisions about their health care,” the report concludes. “While many tools and resources exist today… more work is needed to raise consumer awareness about their availability and value.”

Attitudes and priorities concerning health services vary by demographic group. Knowing those variations can help employers target educational efforts accordingly.

When asked, “How does the cost affect your decisions about choosing a doctor?” fewer survey respondents (27%) reported they “always” consider cost than those (31%) who say they “never” do so.

Also see: Market forces cannot work in health care without price transparency

However, the survey showed a consistent correlation of price-sensitivity to age, with younger people more cost-conscious than older groups. For example, 63% of people in the 18-34 age bracket “always” or “usually” consider cost, versus only 37% in the 55-65 age group. Not surprisingly, the 65+ group, Medicare-eligible, were the least price sensitive.

Gender is also an important variable, with 53% of women in that “always/usually” category, versus 42% of men. Also, Latinos as a group were more price-conscious, with 63% always or usually influenced by price, versus 48% of the population as a whole. So too were parents and, not surprisingly, people with lower incomes.

After cost, the inclusion of the individual’s physician in a health plan’s network was of greatest concern (26% ranked it as their top), particularly among middle-aged and older people. That factor was of much more importance than the number of doctors in a plan’s network; only 6% of the total considered it a “most important” consideration when enrolling in a health plan.

Also see: Cost transparency tools grow in scope

Another pattern revealed in the survey: Low income and lower levels of education correlated with higher utilization of emergency room use for nonemergency medical events.

Consumer passivity

With these concerns in mind, one might expect people to do a lot of comparison shopping. Yet “consumers of all ages reported a lower rate of online comparison shopping for health care services than they did for other categories,” a summary of the report states.

Moreover, the report notes, “millennials were avid online comparison shoppers, especially when it comes to buying consumer electronic gadgets and cars, but there was only a small difference between millennials and other generations when comparing the rates at which they check the prices of medical and dental services online.”

Also see: Health care cost transparency: Are we making progress?

What does this imply for employers? FAIR shares the following tips:

  • Launch year-round educational campaigns.It’s not enough to limit this kind of education to open-enrollment season.
    • Encourage advance planning. “Treatment cost estimators can be used to help families plan their health care expenses based on typical or expected care throughout the year… Understanding the costs of different treatment options or comparing costs between in- and out-of-network care can help consumers make informed choices at the point of accessing care,” FAIR Health states.
    • Keep it simple.  Attention spans are shrinking rapidly, as the popularity of Twitter and 10-second videos reveals. Keep this in mind when creating educational materials.
    • Engage early adopters and millennials. Although generally healthy due to their young age, that will change over time and they will require more complex care. When that time comes, “they will be able to use their tech savvy to fully leverage these tools,” so lay that foundation today.

Richard Stolz is a freelance writer based in Rockville, Maryland.

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