Health Care System's Biggest Problem Isn't Cost; It's Quality

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Doctor's visit checkup
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Do doctor visits cost too us much? Do we need Obamacare to bring these costs down? A recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports suggests the answer is not the obvious "Yes!" you might think.

Three years after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law, many of its major provisions have yet to take effect. And yet, we know the broad outlines: Once in full force, Obamacare will extend medical insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans; eliminate the need for the nation's many currently uninsured patients to seek basic health care at expensive emergency rooms; enable patients to apply for new insurance coverage without being denied based on preexisting conditions; and ask everyone in America to sign up for a health plan or pay a penalty.

There are other details to the law, of course. With the Obamacare document stretching past 2,000 pages in length, that stands to reason. But when you put all the parts together, the result is that the overall cost of health care for America as a nation is supposed to fall.

Now here's something that may surprise you: You know how the high cost of health care was the impetus behind Congress passing Obamacare in the first place? Turns out, when you ask actual patients what they dislike most about America's health care system, "cost" isn't always at the top of the list.

Here's What Really Gives Us Headaches About Health Care

Surveying the opinions of 1,000 Americans in a recent poll of their biggest "gripes" about doctor visits, Consumer Reports discovered that whether or not patients think medical care costs too much, they're pretty darn sure that they're not always getting what they're paying for.

What bothers many Americans -- maybe even more than the cost of medical care -- is the quality of that care.

You can read the entire report on CR's website here, but here are a few highlights to ponder:
  • Doctors who can't clearly explain what ails patients ranked as patients' No. 1 concern -- scoring 8.1 on a 10-point scale, with "10" being patients' biggest gripe.
  • Slow turnaround on medical test results was patients' second-biggest concern (7.9).
  • And the third most important concern?: "Billing disputes" with doctors and insurers -- scoring a 7.8.

As a broad category, problems with medical care "supply" ranked pretty high as well. Patients listed difficulty getting a quick appointment with a physician, "rushed" office consultations, and discharges from the hospital before they were ready as their fourth, fifth, and sixth concerns, respectively.

Complaints No. 9 and 10 -- long spells spent sitting in the waiting room, and inability to get a doctor to return phone calls and emails -- also fit within this category. And you can probably add complaint No. 12 -- inconvenient office hours -- to the category of too little medical "supply" as well.

The Upshot

Cynics may look at these results and dismiss them with a simple quip -- "So, newsflash: Sick people complain a lot." But when figuring out how to implement Obamacare so it makes the most people happy, to counterbalance all the people who are unhappy with the law, Congress might want to give this month's Consumer Reports poll a quick skim.

The upshot here seems to be that if cutting costs requires cutting corners on access and quality of care, voters might not be so eager to embrace Obamacare as legislators would like to think.

And referring back to that No. 1 concern: If you want to improve patient satisfaction with their quality of care, spending a bit of money teaching doctors to communicate better might be a good investment. While you're at it, see if you can get a few of these doctors signed up for a quick refresher course in penmanship. Because prescriptions don't write themselves.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith once spent more than a year trying to get a billing snafu between an insurer and a health care provider fixed. He'd bump that "billing dispute" gripe up from No. 3 to No. 1, if Consumer Reports had asked him.


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