How to talk to your doctor—and save money

Get insights from Dr. Orly Avitzur, medical director at Consumer Reports.

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Key takeaways

  • Costs should be part of every health care conversation.
  • Know how to talk to your doctor.
  • Ask for generic drugs, when available.
  • To stay healthy and save money, take time for your health.

Recent Fidelity polling data1 indicated that health care costs are the biggest factor in people’s decision to retire and pose a huge threat to their financial health before and in retirement. Yet, over 40% of those surveyed who were over age 60 said they did not factor the cost of health care in their retirement planning.

That could be a costly oversight. Fidelity estimates that the average couple retiring this year will need $275,000 in savings to pay for health care expenses throughout their retirement.2

Although health care costs are still opaque to many patients and even doctors, the good news is there are ways to get a better handle on costs—by being proactive in asking questions, and making financially smart and healthy choices.

"Traditional doctor/patient relationships are being transformed by a number of health care megatrends," says Dr. Orly Avitzur, a practicing neurologist and medical director at Consumer Reports, where she writes the "Proactive Patient" column. "Consequently, patients must become excellent communicators, take charge of their health, and become better consumers of health care."

Here she shares her insights with Viewpoints on how the US health care system is changing and provides tips to help empower patients to take charge of their health and save money on medical expenses—all starting with knowing how to talk to your doctors and medical providers.

What can medical providers do to help patients feel less awkward when talking about their health concerns?

Dr. Avitzur: Communication is key. Over the last decade, patients have been spending less face time with doctors, so we all need to be better communicators and better listeners to maximize the time we spend together.

What can patients do to improve communications and better prepare for a doctor's appointment?

Dr. Avitzur: Here are 3 things to do:

  1. Succinctly write down the top problems you are experiencing. This will help your doctor focus on what to treat first. Develop short answers to these questions: What is the nature of your complaint? How long has it been going on? What makes it better or worse? What time of the day is it the worst? What patterns have you observed?
  2. Bring a complete list of all current prescription medications. Include information on dosage and how often you take them. Also detail any over the counter (OTC) medications, vitamins, or mineral supplements you take.
  3. Keep a 3-ring binder with key health documents. Among them: recent test results, lab reports, surgeries, and other relevant health information. Make a duplicate copy of these files to share every time you seek treatment from a new doctor, especially one who works outside of your network. For those more tech savvy, put all relevant information on a CD-ROM or cloud storage on your mobile device and make a copy to share.

What's the best way for patients to ask questions about the cost of treatment?

Dr. Avitzur: Cost should be part of every conversation and patients should feel empowered to bring up the subject. Doctors are not afraid to talk about cost; however, in many cases, we simply do not know the cost of services. We don't have access to insurance product rules to be able to advise patients on exact cost and projected out-of-pocket (OOP) expenses. If a patient has a billing question about a recent hospitalization, contact the hospital billing offices first; then go to the hospital's patient advocacy team, if still not resolved.

The cost question often relates to prescription drugs. For example, some 10%-30% of prescriptions are abandoned at the pharmacy, primarily due to cost. As a physician, I don't want to find out 6 months later that you became more ill because you did not take your medication due to cost.

What should patients know about managing the cost of prescription medications?

Dr. Avitzur: Prescription medication is often the largest cost for patients to wrestle with. Each insurance plan has a drug "formulary" or list of drugs the plan covers. In addition, there are different tiers of coverage. For example, generic drugs are listed in the lowest tier and typically are the cheapest for the consumer because they have the lowest co-pays. If your doctor forgets to bring up a generic prescription alternative during your office visit, then be sure to ask.

Tip: For other ways to save on prescriptions, see the graphic below and read Viewpoints on How to save money on prescription drugs.

As a practicing neurologist, you recently joined an Accountable Care Organization (ACO). What are ACOs and will they help save money while driving better health outcomes?

Dr. Avitzur: An ACO is a group of doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers who have come together to offer "high-value care." That means bringing higher-quality medical care to patients and lowering costs by reducing the use of unnecessary tests and treatments. An ACO gives me access to a larger team of physicians and other experts to help me manage my patients. With more access to providers, it also sets the stage for more quality time for conversations between providers and patients. I believe they will help most health care consumers save money.

Unlike the traditional fee-for-service payment system where health care providers are compensated for each office visit, test, and procedure, an ACO is financially rewarded for keeping patients healthy and driving down the number of tests, procedures, and doctors' visits that have no clear benefit to the patient. Further, ACOs are rewarded when their providers communicate more closely with their patients (especially those who have chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure or heart disease) and help them select the right treatments, while skipping those treatments that are deemed medically unnecessary. I expect ACOs to continue to grow in popularity.

Can patients usually save money on health care services at walk-in clinics vs. emergency rooms?

Dr. Avitzur: Typically, yes. Walk-in clinics are sprouting up all across the country. These facilities are usually located conveniently to where people live, work, or shop. They are suitable for common procedures like flu shots, sports physicals, and minor injuries such as sprains and strains. They are sometimes called retail clinics and are often staffed by primary care physicians, nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs). They are not meant to replace your local hospital emergency room or your regular wellness visits with your primary care physician.

For example, if you cut your finger on a sharp knife on a Saturday night, you could quickly get it sutured at a nearby clinic. These facilities generally save you money on their narrow range of services commonly offered by primary care physicians (PCPs), but they do not offer optimal treatment for patients with multiple, chronic conditions.

How are the roles of NPs and PAs changing?

Dr. Avitzur: NPs and PAs are playing a bigger role in health care delivery, especially within larger group practices. They are trained to see patients in a wide variety of clinical settings and specialties. They are valued members of health teams and provide greater access to quality care in a timely manner.

A new term that people should become familiar with is APP, Advanced Practice Providers. These are typically PAs and NPs who often work in large group specialty practices such as orthopedics or dermatology. Increasingly, they are seeing more patients and have become fully qualified to handle some of the services and procedures that only doctors did in the past.

Another reason for seeing an NP or PA is that there is a coming shortage of Primary Care Physicians (PCPs).

Lastly, how important is staying healthy for people to save money on health care?

Dr. Avitzur: It's vital. We all need to better invest in and take time for our health. To stay well, remember 3 things:

  1. Start by knowing your key numbers: blood pressure, pulse, and cholesterol.
  2. Understand your key risk factors based on your family's medical history.
  3. Make an effort to control your weight. Know your BMI (body mass index) because it plays a role in helping you maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some total knee surgeries or hip replacements are related to being overweight. Obesity is also associated with heart disease, diabetes, and a variety of neurologic conditions. In many cases, these conditions can be mitigated by diet and exercise. Remember, a healthy weight is a good investment in your future health.

Next steps to consider

Review your retirement strategy.

Determine if you're contributing enough to your savings.

Conduct discussions about health, wealth, and legacy planning.

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