Brad Wright, Our Dear Leader, wrote a wonderful piece yesterday discussing the price of health care, using designer brands as examples. This caught my eye, of course, because I am as much a sucker for a $250 wallet that says “Burberry” on it as the next guy. ( Or a $1000 pair of shoes by Manolo, or a $100 T shirt by James Perse, or… What was I saying?) In the course of research I’m doing for a project on the career choice between nursing and medicine I have done some reading on how we make choices in general. One of these books, Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely, has a chapter titled “The Power of Price” which discusses some of the same issues Dr. Wright wrote about. So, with Brad’s permission, I’d like to examine the psychological impact of price a little further.
Let’s start with placebos, as Mr. Ariely does. When I was a new nurse I had an elderly patient who refused to go to sleep without pharmaceutical assistance. After indulging him with chloral hydrate for a couple of weeks (this was the 1990s), the deleterious side effects of giving this medication to elderly patients became apparent and his team decided to discontinue the sleeping pills. We nurses bore the brunt of this decision, as usually happens. One night, after the 16th call for sleeping pills from this gentleman, I got fed up and brought him a Tylenol. The patient took the pill and slept all night. It wasn’t the action of a specific medication that helped him sleep, but the act of taking a pill he expected to make him sleep.
Many of the financial decisions we make are based on this placebo effect, which runs on advertising, essentially. Instead of feeling better because we expect to, we pay more because we expect the more expensive option to be better. As Brad said, we expect an expensive wallet to be of better quality than a cheap one, because we equate price and quality. That this relationship does not necessarily exist has little bearing on our choices. I bought a shirt for a couple hundred bucks from The Row, and another shirt almost exactly the same from Ann Taylor Loft. Both shirts got holes in them. In the case of the expensive shirt I assumed this was what it was supposed to do – the “distressed” look, maybe. The other, cheaper shirt I assumed was just poor quality. We do the same thing with healthcare spending. If it costs a lot and has a brand name, it must be better. If the pharmacy gives a patient the generic and the medication doesn’t work, it’s because the pills themselves are no good. If the patient then gets the brand-name version of the exact same drug, there’s a good chance it will work better because she expects it to work better.
Mr. Ariely and some colleagues actually ran an experiment very much like my little attempt to help a man sleep. They gave a bunch of people a painful sensation, then gave them a drug with a fancy name that the subjects were told was an innovative new painkiller, then gave the subjects the painful stimulus again. The subjects felt less pain the second time, even though the drug was really just a vitamin C tablet. But here’s the interesting thing. When the subjects were told the painkiller was expensive, they were twice a likely to experience pain relief than if they were told the drug was cheap. As Mr Ariely says, “Price can change the experience”.
Now, in healthcare most of the time the consumer, i.e the patient, doesn’t know the price of the pill or treatment or test he’s getting. Nor does he necessarily care because he’s not paying for it. So patients use surrogate markers of price. Say I’m presented with two wallets and asked to choose one. I’m told I can get either wallet for free. One is soft brown leather with lots of pockets. The other has a lower quality leather and no pockets but has “Dior” emblazoned on it. According to Ariely’s research, and personal experience, most people will choose the Dior wallet, assuming it is of better quality. Patients do this with healthcare resources all the time. They go to Brigham and Women’s instead of Milton Hospital because Brigham is famous and has an Harvard affiliation. A patient wants an MD anesthesiologist instead of a CRNA because the person with the more expensive education must be better. Another has back pain and gets both a CT and an MRI, which makes her feel good that she’s getting such high quality care, two imaging tests being better than one. The actual quality of the care might be exactly the same, and the outcomes may be the same, but the expectations change the experience. This is why it’s so hard to cut wasteful spending.