Does Supply and Demand Work in Healthcare? (Updated!)

This post is an update to my popular post, Does Supply and Demand Work in Healthcare? It explains the same things, but this version is shorter and clearer.

Supply and demand carry with them a few assumptions. When those assumptions are met, supply and demand works. When those assumptions are violated, supply and demand don’t work as we would expect. Healthcare is very different from most markets in the United States, especially in a couple key ways that violate the assumptions of supply and demand. The first violated assumption is that consumers have price and quality information. The second violated assumption is that consumers actually pay the price of what they buy. There are others, but these are the biggest ones, so let’s focus on them one at a time.

Assumption 1: Consumers Have Price and Quality Information

Think about how most markets work. People spend their own money to buy things they want. And because people don’t have unlimited dollars to spend, they’re weighing the value (Value = Quality/Price) of their different options–if something is higher quality but also higher priced, they have to decide if it’s worth it for them to spend that additional money to get that additional quality.

Think about how that impacts companies competing in a market. If one company makes a really high-value product, tons of people will buy it, and the company will increase supply so it won’t miss out on all those potential sales. If another company makes a dud of a product, it won’t get many sales, and it will decrease supply. (Yes I recognize that this is ignoring many complicating factors, but those factors don’t affect the point I’m trying to make here.)

Now, let’s look at how healthcare is different . . .

When patients choose a healthcare provider, they mostly aren’t using price and quality to make their decision. So even if a hospital is super high value, it won’t generally win the market share that it should, so it isn’t building additional wards like it would if it were competing in almost any other industry. Conversely, a low-value hospital will continually get more patients than it should, and it will keep its wards open.

Taking this one step further, a hospital will have a hard time investing in value-improving innovations if it’s not going to win more market share (i.e., additional profits) as a result. And, unfortunately, our current system often financially penalizes value-improving innovations. See here for more explanation on that.

Assumption 2: Consumers Actually Pay the Price of What They Buy

As I said above, a consumer in almost any other market will think carefully before buying a really expensive good or service. “This is way more expensive than the other one. Is it better enough to be worth it?” Same goes for deciding how much of something they’ll buy; people (usually) won’t buy more of a good or service than they think they can afford.

So, in other words, when customers actually have to fork out the dough for the thing they’re buying, their demand is appropriately limited. And, when demand is limited, that in turn constrains the quantity supplied–companies don’t want to spend a bunch of money making tons of goods that are unlikely to ever get sold without drastically reducing the price.

Now, let’s look at how healthcare is different . . .

The most obvious example I could bring up is end-of-life care. Think about a patient who had a massive stroke and is now in the ICU on life support, showing no signs of life for multiple days. There’s always the slightest chance they could recover some function, so it’s not unreasonable for families to cling to that hope and keep dragging it out. . . . Except that estimates of the cost for each additional day in the ICU run around the $5,000 mark. But, the family has probably already hit the out-of-pocket max for the year, so they won’t be paying a single cent more even if they drag the ICU stay on for another few days. My point is that demand is almost unlimited in a situation like this, and the hospital is happy to continue supplying the care as long as they’re getting paid for it. I’ve written elsewhere about the problems that arise when the party choosing how much care to get is not the same party that foots the bill.

These are just two examples of broken assumptions of supply and demand in healthcare. I am not saying that supply and demand will never work in healthcare; I’m just saying that the way our system is currently organized violates some of those assumptions. I’ve also written about how to fix that.

I’ll end with one other implication of all of this. Critics of “market-driven healthcare” abound because they say we’ve been trying it for a long time and look where it’s gotten us. But we actually haven’t truly tried it yet because we haven’t ever made the changes necessary to remove the barriers to supply and demand. Without explaining it fully here, I’ll assert that we can remove enough of those barriers for supply and demand to work well in healthcare. And the changes that would be required to accomplish that are compatible with any structure of healthcare system, be it a private system, a single-payer system, a fully government-run system, or whatever.

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One thought on “Does Supply and Demand Work in Healthcare? (Updated!)”

  1. Cost (total health spending) is The Problem, as explained by Dr. Christiansen. Competition in a free market is ideally effective in driving down costs and in rewarding innovation and efficiency. Competition should thus be promoted as much as feasible, including removal of barriers to free markets, as advocated by Dr. Christiansen. However, this approach would not overcome obstacles posed by vested interests and by political power brokers. And market competition would strand low-income patients (often bankrupted by serious illness) with no place in the market for needed care, unless financed in whole or part by public means. Oregon Medicaid found a way in 1994 to overcome those obstacles by paying for higher-value services and disallowing the least marginally beneficial services, while preserving private delivery systems and market elements. See my blog for more – http://fixushealthcare.blog/2017/10/24/segment-9-the-big-fix

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