Increasing Physician Literacy Around Healthcare Costs

ISMS President
Rodney S. Alford, M.D., M.B.A.

As physicians, we are committed to providing the best possible care for our patients. I am sure, however, that every one of us has a story about a patient for whom the cost of care was a significant barrier to treatment. Indeed, 58.5% of Americans who faced bankruptcy cited medical expenses as a significant contributor to their debt.1 Four in ten U.S. adults report delaying or going without medical care in the last year due to costs.2 Furthermore, total personal healthcare expenditures as a percentage of GDP in Illinois currently stands at 14.4%, and that number continues to rise year over year.

To ensure that our patients can access the treatment they need, we cannot be naïve to the realities of growing healthcare costs within our profession. Yet, a 2020 survey of 900 physicians indicated that only 21% could accurately estimate out-of-pocket drug costs.3 For over forty years, our Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS) has encouraged its members to be aware of the cost of hospital services, supplies, and drugs as a voluntary step toward cost containment. At this year’s Annual Meeting, ISMS approved a new policy further endorsing price transparency within all sectors of the healthcare market and encouraging physicians to incorporate discussions on healthcare costs during patient counseling. The American College of Physicians offers many resources that can help you get started in discussing costs with your patients.

External cost control pressures are closing in on physicians at an ever-greater rate. Physicians can do our part by bringing ourselves up to speed on the healthcare expenses facing patients. Not only can we strengthen the physician-patient relationship and build trust by demonstrating our understanding of their financial concerns, but we can also work together with our patients to choose the most effective treatment plan that will be practical within their financial constraints.

Employed physicians can also advocate for greater transparency within your healthcare system, such as by supporting increased access to accurate and easily understandable costs for tests, procedures, medications, and supplies. Encourage residency programs, medical school programs, and fellowships to incorporate education on the economics of healthcare delivery and financial literacy.

The economic pressures facing our patients are significant; we can help patients access the care they need and adhere to the treatment regimens they have been prescribed by educating ourselves about the realities of healthcare costs.

ISMS’ new policy on healthcare literacy is a result of a resolution introduced by our Medical Student Section members. Any ISMS member can introduce a resolution to drive the future of our strategic policy agenda. Submit a resolution on a matter close to your heart by October 21, 2023 for consideration at the next meeting of the ISMS Board of Trustees.

1 Himmelstein DU, Lawless RM, Thorne D, Foohey P, Woolhandler S. Medical Bankruptcy: Still Common Despite the Affordable Care Act. Am J Public Health. 2019;109(3):431-433. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304901
3 Sloan CE, Millo L, Gutterman S, Ubel PA. Accuracy of Physician Estimates of Out-of-Pocket Costs for Medication Filling. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(11):e2133188. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.33188
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