Call for website to compare doctors’ fees and services

Consumer body pushes for MySchool-style site after study finds some patients paying five times more than others to see a specialist

Patients would be able to compare medical doctors’ prices and services on a MySchool-style website under a proposed transparency measure being pushed by the national healthcare consumer body.

But the Australian Medical Association has criticised the plan as an “unwieldy” imposition on specialists.

On Monday the Consumers Health Forum of Australia called for a comparison service for specialists’ fees after a study in the Medical Journal of Australia found some Australians are paying five times more than others to see a specialist depending on their need and location.

The comparison service would resemble services including MySchool, which rates primary and secondary schools around the country, and petrol price comparison sites run by several state governments.

The Consumers Health Forum chief executive, Leanne Wells, said medical specialists should be required to list their fees publicly to prevent “bill shock” from unexpectedly high charges.

She said the MJA report showed “dramatic variations in what specialists charge, highlight[ing] the pressing need for a transparent system that gives patients some power and choice about whom they seek treatment from”.

“We propose the establishment of an independent and authoritative website to list fees and ultimately data on the performance of specialists such as measures of quality.

“It is reasonable to expect that a profession whose incomes are heavily reliant on the taxpayer and health fund members, should have their fees openly and easily accessible.”

A group of private health insurers have already launched a doctor review and booking service called WhiteCoat, but its listings are not complete as participation is voluntary.

Wells said the government should consider pushing specialists to be listed on the new comparison website by making eligibility for benefits including Medicare and subsidised health insurance benefits dependent on taking part.

The Australian Medical Association president, Michael Gannon, told Guardian Australia the proposal would be “unwieldy and extremely difficult”, because specialists charge for a hundred or more items on the Medicare benefits schedule, some at different rates depending on the insurer.

Gannon said the AMA is opposed to “excessive fees” and recognises they can represent a barrier to accessing healthcare. He said there was no argument that the gap payments of some elective surgeries were hard to defend but a website would not fix the issue.

“It’s not comparing apples with apples – a first appointment might last seven minutes or an hour.”

Gannon said doctors give indicative information about costs but he didn’t think their services should be advertised “like wedding packs”.

Gannon said 86% of procedures are bulk-billed, and a further 7% were conducted “with a known gap payment, fully informed financial consent and a gap of less than $400”.

He said 85% of doctors’ consultations, and 40% of consultations with specialists, were bulk-billed with no cost to patients.

The chief executive officer of the Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges, Angela Magarry, said specialists could support a comparison website if it allowed patients to look up costs, provided listed costs are “not linked to assumptions about quality”.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president, Bastian Seidel, said there was no need for a comparison service to cover GPs because professional regulation already required them to publish fees on their websites.

“It would be a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in general practice.”

A health department spokeswoman said: “The government supports increased transparency so patients understand the costs and prices for services.”

She added she was not aware of the department working on a proposal to develop such a comparison site.

A spokesman for the health minister, Greg Hunt, said a comparison website for doctors’ fees was “not government policy and not under consideration”.