The Price of Diagnostic Imaging Around the World

13 Nov

Diagnostic imaging represents one of the greatest leaps forward in medical innovation. With the advent of CT and MRI scans, physicians became able to move beyond the mere X-Ray and could visualize soft tissue, revolutionizing the practice of medicine. After all, how could the ability to see inside someone–to render three-dimensional images without breaking the skin–not forever change how doctors are able to do their job? But at what cost? Well, as it turns out, the cost of utilizing this sophisticated technology depends on where you plug the machine into the wall. Take a look. First up, the abdominal CT scan:

As you can see, three figures are included for the U.S. First, there is the low-end average price. Then, the high-end average price. Finally, the Medicare reimbursement rate. You’ll notice that the U.S. “high” blows everything out of the water, while the U.S. “low” is higher than every other country as well–although Australia comes close to this figure. What’s striking here? How reasonable Medicare reimbursement rates suddenly appear when compared not to the rest of the U.S. but to the rest of the world. Providers in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK would all be quite pleased to be paid at the Medicare rate.

Does the trend hold up for other types of imaging? You bet. Here’s the head CT scan:

The trend of imaging costing more in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world continues, but here comes something even more interesting. In most other countries, with the exception of Canada, a CT of the head costs less–sometimes much less–than a CT of the abdomen. Without going into it, there must be some basis for that, right? Perhaps the abdomen is more complex because of its different organs? Whatever the cause, it doesn’t hold true in the U.S. where, contrary to the rest of the world, head CTs are far more expensive than abdominal CTs. Illogical? Probably.

Finally, there’s the MRI. What do we find? Prices in the U.S. still trump the rest of the world, but the margins aren’t as great. I can’t give you a reason for that, it’s just the way it is.

Up tomorrow: The price of a visit to the doctor for a variety of ailments.


Posted by on November 13, 2009 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Price of Diagnostic Imaging Around the World

  1. Anonymous

    November 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I think you are comparing apples and oranges. In other countries, the provider gets paid what they charge. Look at your most recent EOB (explanation of benefits) from your insurance company. It doesn't matter a bit what they charge, the company will pay you what they consider "usual and customary". In areas with only a few insurance companies, providers have no choice or they lose most of their patients. So you can list $182 as what a US provider has as a service, and realize they probably get $42, which in many cases barely covers the cost (if you factor in malpractice, which those other countries don't have to deal with). There is no way to compare prices in other countries unless you use non-covered services as examples (elective procedures like plastic surgery).

  2. D. Brad Wright

    November 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    In response to anonymous, you are right, providers in other countries get paid what they charge, because they charge what the government will allow. You are incorrect, however, about the figures I report. The US figures are the self-reported amounts paid by third party payers. That is, Aetna, BCBS, and others are providing figures on how much they pay out. These are NOT the figures charged by providers, which as you point out are no doubt much, much higher than this.


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