It was a simple question: How much do hospitals charge to remove an appendix?
The answer stunned researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.
As the Associated Press reported, the researchers found that California hospitals charge anywhere from the price of a refrigerator to the cost of a house.
For this common procedure, patient bills varied from as little as $1,529 to as much as $182,955, with an average of $33,000 -- and experts worry that the situation isn't unique to California.
"There's no method to the madness," said lead author Renee Hsia, an emergency room physician and UCSF researcher. "There's no system at all to determine what is a rational price for this condition or this procedure."
Hsia said she and her colleagues expected to see variations among hospitals of two or three times the amount, but not 100 or 121 times.
The study illustrates that "the laws of supply and demand simply do not work well in health care," Howard Brody, M.D., director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and a frequent critic of skyrocketing medical costs, told the Associated Press.
The researchers examined 2009 data that hospitals were required to submit to the state on 19,368 adults under age 60 with appendicitis. To get the fairest comparisons, the researchers included only uncomplicated cases with hospital stays of less than four days.
Huge variations in pricing were found, even within the same county, the researchers reported.
The study also found:
* Charges went up with the patient's age.
* The uninsured and those on Medicaid were charged more.
* Those with other health conditions, like cancer, diabetes and congestive heart failure, were charged more.
Obviously, patients should be shopping for price when it comes to health care, but that's easier said than done, the researchers note. A patient doubled-over in abdominal pain, they write, "is in a poor position to determine whether his or her physician is ordering the appropriate blood work, imaging, or surgical procedure."
So what can consumers do if faced with an exorbitant bill?
There are companies that can help you negotiate your hospital bill.
The consumer website Healthcare Blue Book offers a guide to fair prices in your area, which can give you some idea of what you should have been charged. In addition, the website also offers tips on how you can negotiate a lower bill.
In other health news:
FDA approves new faster-acting Viagra. The first new erectile dysfunction drug in a decade was approved last week by the Food and Drug Administration. Avanafil, which will be sold under the brand name Stendra, is faster-acting than its rival Viagra, Reuters reports.
Survey shows best, worst paid doctors -- and many regrets. Increasing numbers of U.S. doctors regret their career choices --- even while taking in salaries average Americans might consider pretty sweet, reports USA Today. Those salaries remain much sweeter for some specialists than others, though, according to an annual survey of physician pay from Medscape/WebMD. Among the highest paid doctors: radiologists ($315,000) and cardiologists ($314,000). Among the lowest paid: pediatricians ($156,000), family medicine doctors ($158,000), and internal medicine ($165,000).
Should your dog be watching TV? The New York Times reports on DogTV, the first cable network to deliver 24-hour programming for dogs. The shows are actually three- to six-minute segments featuring grassy fields, bouncing balls and humans rubbing dog tummies. There are also segments featuring noiseless vacuum cleaners and muted doorbells to help make dogs more comfortable around such common household agitations.
Hand-me-downs are useful -- even when it's a kidney. Msnbc.com reports that a single kidney that was transplanted twice in two weeks is working fine after what appears to be the first-ever case of doctors salvaging a hand-me-down organ after it started to fail.
Photo credit: urbanbohemian via flickr.com