Analyzing health care data to empower patients

Castlight Health presents their vision of health care consumerism at Strata Rx

The stress of falling seriously ill often drags along the frustration of having no idea what the treatment will cost. We’ve all experienced the maddening stream of seemingly endless hospital bills, and testimony by E-patient Dave DeBronkart and others show just how absurd U.S. payment systems are.

So I was happy to seize the opportunity to ask questions of three researchers from Castlight Health about the service they’ll discuss at the upcoming Strata Rx conference about data in health care.

Castlight casts its work in the framework of a service to employers and consumers. But make no mistake about it: they are a data-rich research operation, and their consumers become empowered patients (e-patients) who can make better choices.

As Arjun Kulothungun, John Zedlewski, and Eugenia Bisignani wrote to me, “Patients become empowered when actionable information is made available to them. In health care, like any other industry, people want high quality services at competitive prices. But in health care, quality and cost are often impossible for an average consumer to determine. We are proud to do the heavy lifting to bring this information to our users.”

Following are more questions and answers from the speakers:

Tell me a bit about what you do at Castlight and at whom you aim your services.

We work together in the Research team at Castlight Health. We provide price and quality information to our users for most common health care services, including those provided by doctors, hospitals, labs, and imaging facilities. This information is provided to patients through a user-friendly web interface and mobile app that shows their different health care options customized to their health care plan. Our research team has built a sophisticated pricing system that factors in a wide variety of data sources to produce accurate prices for our users.

At a higher level, this fits into our company’s drive toward health care transparency, to help users better understand and navigate their health care options. Currently, we sell this product to employers to be offered as a benefit to their employees and their dependents. Our product is attractive to self-insured employers who operate a high-deductible health plan. High-deductible health plans motivate employees to explore their options, since doing so helps them save on their health care costs and find higher quality care. Our product helps patients easily explore those options.

What kinds of data do you use? What are the challenges involved in working with this data and making it available to patients?

We bring in data from a variety of sources to model the financial side of the health care industry, so that we can accurately represent the true cost of care to our users. One of the challenges we face is that the data is often messy. This is due to the complex ways that health care claims are adjudicated, and the largely manual methods of data entry. Additionally, provider data is not highly standardized, so it is often difficult to match data from different sources. Finally, in a lot of cases the data is sparse: some health care procedures are frequent, but others are only seldom performed, so it is more challenging to determine their prices.

The variability of care received also presents a challenge, because the exact care a patient receives during a visit cannot always be predicted ahead of time. A single visit to a doctor can yield a wide array of claim line items, and the patient is subsequently responsible for the sum of these services. Thus, our intent is to convey the full cost of the care patients are to receive. We believe patients are interested in understanding their options in a straightforward way, and that they don’t think in terms of claim line items and provider billing codes. So we spend a lot of time determining the best way to reflect the total cost of care to our users.

How much could a patient save if they used Castlight effectively? What would this mean for larger groups?

For a given procedure or service, the difference in prices in a local area can vary by 100% or more. For instance, right here in San Francisco, we can see that the cost for a particular MRI varies from $450 to nearly $3000, depending on the facility that a patient chooses, while an office visit with a primary care doctor can range from $60 to $180. But a patient may not always wish to choose the lowest cost option. A number of different factors affect how much a patient could save: the availability of options in their vicinity, the quality of the services, the patient’s ability to change the current doctor/hospital for a service, personal preferences, and the insurance benefits provided. Among our customers, the empowerment of patients adds up to employer savings of around 13% in comparison to expected trends.

In addition to cost savings, Castlight also helps drive better quality care. We have shown a 38% reduction in gaps in care for chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. This will help drive further savings as individuals adhere to clinically proven treatment schedules.

What other interesting data sets are out there for health care consumers to use? What sorts of data do you wish were available?

Unfortunately, data on prices of health care procedures is still not widely available from government sources and insurers. Data sources that are available publicly are typically too complex and arcane to be actionable for average health care consumers.

However, CMS has recently made a big push to provide data on hospital quality. Their “hospital compare” website is a great resource to access this data. We have integrated the Medicare statistics into the Castlight product, and we’re proud of the role that Castlight co-founder and current CTO of the United States Todd Park played in making it available to the public. Despite this progress on sharing hospital data, the federal government has not made the same degree of progress in sharing information for individual physicians, so we would love to see more publicly collected data in this area.

Are there crowdsourcing opportunities? If patients submitted data, could it be checked for quality, and how could it further improve care and costs?

We believe that engaging consumers by asking them to provide data is a great idea! The most obvious place for users to provide data is by writing reviews of their experiences with different providers, as well as rating those providers on various facets of care. Castlight and other organizations aggregate and report on these reviews as one measure of provider quality.

It is harder to use crowdsourced information to compute costs. There are significant challenges in matching crowdsourced data to providers and especially to services performed, because line items are not identified to consumers by their billing codes. Additionally, rates tend to depend on the consumer’s insurance plan. Nonetheless, we are exploring ways to use crowdsourced pricing data for Castlight.

Strata Rx — Strata Rx, being held Oct. 16-17 in San Francisco, is the first conference to bring data science to the urgent issues confronting health care.

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