By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
To say that (American) medical care is expensive is a gross understatement. An office visit can cost over a $100; an ER visit for a non-emergency can cost thousands. X-rays are expensive and often unnecessary. Prescriptions costs have skyrocketed. And, it is going to get worse.
Many of my patients who have insurance have chosen high-deductible plans in order to make their premiums more affordable. Paying the first few thousand dollars is quite common. Co-payments for each visit are getting higher and higher, and insurances are limiting the amount and type of medications on their formularies. Insurance companies are finding ways of cutting costs, so the consumer will need to be equally as vigilant in doing the same.
- Be your own doctor (sometimes): Providing your own medical care requires a great deal of common sense. I wouldn’t want you to try and remove your own appendix or sew up your own wound with the sewing kit. Most medical care in the world is self-administered, so you will not be alone. Practice good prevention and personal hygiene to limit your illnesses. When you get sick, it is perfectly fine to try proven home remedies (no quack cures, please). You will also need to know when to call in the professionals.
- Get large quantities of regular medications: Monthly or even three-month prescriptions can be pricey, but if you can arrange to buy a year’s supply of a medication for cash, you may find it less-expensive than paying your insurance co-pay. Some medications, like controlled drugs or narcotics, may only be available in month-supplies.
- Shop around for the best prices in medical care or prescriptions: If you are paying for your medical visits or have high deductibles, it would be wise to call around to various urgent care facilities and ask prices. Prices on pharmaceuticals also vary wildly, so call around. Big-box stores often have less-expensive prescriptions.
- Buy generics: Whether over-the-counter or prescription, generic-brand medications are considerably less-expensive than their brand-name cousins. Liquid generics for children may not have the same flavoring, but they are bio-equivalent when it comes to efficacy. They are the same drug; just cheaper.
- Self-educate: Use the Internet (especially WebMD) to research your medical condition. While you may not be able to accurate diagnose (or treat) yourself over the Internet, at least you will be an informed consumer if or when you seek professional care.
- Trust your immune system. Long before there were convenient clinics, there were illnesses. Many, many human afflictions will self-resolve if you give the immune system a chance to work. A cold is not going to go away in a day; so why not wait a few days. Some illnesses do require immediate care, so make good judgments for yourself and your family.
- Avoid the ER unless you have a true emergency: The ER is a busy place with many critically ill or injured patients. Your sore throat is not considered an emergency even if you think it is. You will wait hours to be seen for minor illnesses, so why bother? True emergencies – those that may cause the loss of a life or limb – should be in the ER.
- Question the rationale or medical necessity of any lab test, medication, or x-ray: Many medical providers order unnecessary x-rays or lab tests. Some feel that this will protect them from malpractice, but they can be a waste of time or money. If the medical provider orders tests, they have a responsibility to justify the need. Sometimes, you can negotiate and agree to have them later if the case permits. If you get better, they may not be needed at all.
- Make every medical visit count: As a medical provider, I tend to hate the “Oh, by the way….” extra medical issues, but it is important to get your money’s worth. Most medical appointments are 15-20 minutes or longer, so have your list ready. Make sure the issues are important. Get refills of any medications while you are there, and get ALL of your questions answered. Medical offices are getting fewer and fewer pharmaceutical samples to hand out, but don’t hesitate to ask. A generous medical provider can save you lots of money.
- Marry a doctor, dentist, or pharmacist: Medical care can be less-expensive if you marry one of these professionals or encourage one of your children to pursue a health professions career. If you can’t marry one, you can always try and find a good one. Developing a friendly relationship with your health professionals can be very important when it comes to saving money. If someone asks me to try and keep their medical costs down, I will listen. I have even been known to charge nothing on occasion just because if feels good to help someone in need.
Finding affordable medical care is no different than any other consumer purchase. You may research a half-dozen stores looking for the best deal on a flat-screen television or cell phone plan. You take care of your vehicles as long as you can, and carefully research and negotiate the best deal when you have to get a new or used car. When it comes to medical care, I find the people are often reluctant to shop around, but you should.