ER costs for treating stones, UTI vary widely

March 4, 2013

A recent study highlights huge price swings in patient charges for the 10 most common outpatient conditions-including kidney stones and urinary tract infection-in emergency rooms across the country.

A recent study highlights huge price swings in patient charges for the 10 most common outpatient conditions-including kidney stones and urinary tract infection-in emergency rooms across the country.

The study, representing an estimated 76 million emergency department visits between 2006 and 2008, used data from the 2006-2008 Medical Expenditures Panel Survey from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Researchers focused on adults 18 to 64 years of age, the demographic at the highest risk of facing the largest out-of-pocket charges. It excluded people 65 years of age or older because most such patients are covered by Medicare. Visits resulting in hospital admission were also excluded.

Altogether, the authors, who published their findings online in PLOS ONE (Feb. 27, 2013), looked at the total charges-medical care, tests, and treatment-for 8,303 patients, nearly half of them privately insured. The charges do not represent the amount patients or insurers reimburse providers, but rather the total charge that patients or their insurance providers are billed. Because of the complex survey design, the number of patients analyzed in the sample was weighted to provide the total estimated number of ER visits during the study time frame.

The authors found that out-of-pocket patient charges ranged from $128 to $39,408 for kidney stones and $50 to $73,502 for urinary tract infections. Of all the conditions studied, which also included sprains and strains, headache treatment, and intestinal infections, kidney stone treatment had the highest median price at $3,437.

"Our study shows unpredictable and wide differences in health care costs for patients," said senior author Renee Y. Hsia, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco.

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