For more than a decade, there's been a push for greater transparency of providers' cost and quality data. Policymakers at the state and federal level continue advocate for the public reporting, suggesting that consumers, when armed with relevant data, will make more informed decisions. Or, as the authors of a recent Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality study note, "The goal of cost data is to reduce waste and unnecessary care without sacrificing quality of care." But, the researchers also point out that "little is known about how consumers will respond to, interpret, or apply data on health care costs and resource use."


So, the researchers set out to understand, at least on a limited scale, how consumers react to quality and cost information. The study, published in the March issue of Health Affairs, studied the reactions of 1,400 people to different presentations of cost and quality data. Researchers used combinations of symbols — dollar signs and stars — specific information such as dollar amounts and percentages, and labels such as "appropriate use" or "better." Not surprisingly, consumers selected high-value providers when shown "strong, unambiguous quality and cost information." However, when limited quality data was shown, respondents were more likely to select the high-cost provider, equating big dollar signs with better quality, as we do in so many other areas of the economy.

What does this mean for public policy? Well, the researchers are quick to point out that their study was "experimental" and has limitations. That said, they contend, "Reporting strategies that will get consumers' attention and help them use the data are those that interpret the data and help consumers see that a doctor who provides higher-quality care than other doctors does not necessarily cost more."

The study is available in the March issue of Health Affairs.