Price transparency – access to information pertaining to costs – could well be emerging as a trend in the healthcare industry.

If a consumer can use the Internet to comparison shop for the best price on a pair of shoes, or an airline ticket, then why not a heart bypass surgery as well? While the determining the costs of hospital services is undoubtedly more complicated than shoe shopping or researching fare information, consumers are increasingly gaining access to such pricing information.

The Georgia Hospital Association recently introduced a consumer “quality guide” called Georgia Hospital Price Check which allows users to research basic hospital charges based on the age of the patient, hospital, and type of treatment or procedure. Results include a comparison of average costs for other hospitals in the county and state.

HCA North Texas is a pioneer in launching its pricing transparency initiative, which allows patients to research the estimated costs of a treatment or procedure at any of the hospitals in its system. After selecting a specific hospital, users can click on “insured” or “uninsured” and then follow a series of prompts to view estimated charges.

The Commonwealth Fund, a private public policy foundation which focuses on increasing the quality and efficiency of the U.S. health care system, recently published an article that highlights the many benefits – and challenges – of publicly reporting health care costs. In The Move Toward Transparency in Health Care, discusses the controversy surrounding public access to information pertaining to quality measures and costs of hospital services.

The report cites advantages of public reporting such as encouraging competition among hospitals and health care systems, increasing accountability. Concerns include the comparability and accuracy of results and how the information would be interpreted and used by consumers.