A few weeks ago I received a call from a close friend asking for some help. As he is currently undergoing treatment for cancer (thankfully with an excellent prognosis), I assumed he wanted my advice on a medical decision.

I was relieved to hear his treatment was going well, but was taken aback at his request. He wanted me to help him untangle his mountain of medical bills. He was staring at a pile of paper itemizing his every test, diagnostic procedure and treatment and could not figure out what he was being charged, what his insurance had paid and what he would ultimately owe. It took me hours to review his bills and to this day, I am not sure that I fully understand all of the charges.  I can only imagine the fear and frustration that all of our patients feel when they receive medical bills they can’t understand. The plea for help from my friend served as a wakeup call for me. If a CEO of a medical center can’t untangle one person’s tab, how can we expect our patients to figure it out?

There’s interesting action on this front. The federal government is now looking for ways to standardize medical bills to make them easier to understand. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a contest for companies in the medical industry to design a bill that can eventually be used across health care making it easier for patients to understand. Winners will be announced next month and I am anxious to see the solutions offered.

If we expect patients to become responsible and cost conscious “consumers” of health care, the industry needs to deliver a medical bill that people can actually understand and a billing process that makes sense.

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