The Online Shopping Experience with Health In Reach

Comparing prices for almost anything: it’s something we don’t usually mind taking the time to do because it’s easy. Google, Amazon or Kayak that hotel room, that car or that greatest Halloween costume ever. On top of the convenience of being able to buy it online, you’re likely to also get a deal on it once you’ve looked at your options.

However, most health care services haven’t been part of the online shopping phenomenon until recently. That’s mostly because health care facilities have been slow to make it possible to book appointments online, and also because it’s hard to advertise health care prices when most services and procedures don’t have standard or static rates.

Health care startup Health in Reach joins ZocDoc, Vitals and BetterDoctor in trying to promote appointment booking online. Each of these services offers something a little different from Health in Reach’s website; ZocDoc focuses on letting patients find doctors in their network as well as getting patients in the door as quickly as possible by letting them book recently opened appointments. Vitals and BetterDoctor both put a strong emphasis on finding a physician based on quality.

Health in Reach focuses on price. This is because the service caters mostly to people who are paying out of pocket for their health care services. Just like you’d use Priceline to weigh cost and convenience to decide whether to stay at the Hilton or the Hyatt, you can use Health in Reach to decide whether to get your teeth cleaned three towns away or up the road.

To compliment its bargain shopping services, Health in Reach launched CarePoints this week. The points system acts like a frequent flyer miles program through which patients can earn points to redeem toward medical or dental appointments. Users can earn points by booking online with Health in Reach and by contributing a review of a provider they’ve seen.

The website provides descriptions and prices for more than 90,000 specific procedures nationwide. CEO Scott Sangster said the company is currently focused on dental procedures and services, but it will expand its medical-related listings.

Sangster said he sees an opportunity for Health in Reach in the coming years as provisions of the Affordable Care Act roll out. The ACA will bring tens of thousands of uninsured into the health care system via health care exchanges by 2014. Even though these people will have coverage, many of them will still pay out of pocket for certain medical needs like an annual checkup.

“Insurance trends tend to favor high deductible plans. And so what we think the exchanges will do is they will expose lower premium options to consumers, and lower premiums tend to be associated with higher deductibles. That begins to bring people into a mode where they care about costs,” Sangster said.

He said that, through his website, he’s seen the benefits for both patients and providers of moving prices online. Providers are less likely to keep a rate fixed if they’re able to easily react to supply and demand. If demand is low, physicians will lower their prices. During this time patients get a deal, but providers might also get the chance to welcome new patients — who are initially attracted by that lower price — to the practice.

“I think there’s a lot of innovation going in the financial model of primary care practices,” Sangster said. “And a lot of that is toward kind of being more transparent, exposing prices, exposing schedules, understanding that the modern doctor-patient relationship requires a certain level of compromise.”