Maintaining healthy immune systems is critical for people with the flu and other infectious illnesses.
But many hospitals have been reluctant to provide these services because they can be costly and time-consuming.
This year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have begun exploring how hospitals can charge patients for testing.
In a study published online today in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers used data from 1,619 patients who had been enrolled in the Johns Hopkins Clinic’s MENTOR program, which provides discounted blood and blood products to low-income patients.
Patients in the MENTor program were then asked about their needs for routine tests, including routine laboratory tests for influenza, HIV and other infections, as well as routine laboratory services.
In all, the study found that the MESS-MENTOR trial had a statistically significant effect on patients’ spending.
The average cost of the routine lab test was $3.26, compared with $1.86 for the MART-MELCOM trial, the investigators said.
In addition, the MASS-MASS trial showed a significant effect for the patients’ medical insurance coverage, which decreased from $6.26 for the non-MESS-MELLON trial to $3 for the study participants.
These results are important because, despite having better access to testing, most people with influenza and other chronic conditions are unable to afford tests or routine lab services.
“The people with these conditions are going to be the hardest hit,” said lead author Dr. Thomas J. Evers, a professor of medicine at the Johns, Johns Hopkins and University of Michigan Medical Schools.
“It is a very complicated situation.”
Evers and his colleagues examined the cost of routine lab tests for two types of viral infections: influenza, which has spread to more than a billion people worldwide, and HIV, which is a chronic infection.
The researchers found that if a patient in the study had to pay $3 to $4 for the tests, that would make them spend $3,900 a year.
That translates into about $1,000 per person annually.
But if a person had the same income, it would only cost about $300 a year, the team calculated.
The team also analyzed how well the MES-MELECOM trial’s results translated to patients in the real world.
They found that patients who received the same routine lab testing as their peers in the non MESS trial spent about $500 more per year.
And, again, they spent more if their insurance coverage was low.
But it was the results for people who had to spend more on testing that made the most difference, the authors said.
The people who spent more than $5,000 a year on routine lab expenses had significantly higher costs than those who spent less.
They were also more likely to report having had a doctor’s visit, which can add up to a substantial additional expense.
While the results of the MELCOM and MESS trials are promising, the Johns team noted that a number of factors can affect costs.
One of these is that many tests are not readily available in low-cost countries.
And even when testing is available, it can be difficult to get patients to pay for tests.
“The challenge in getting the money to people with low incomes and uninsured is that the price of lab tests has gone up and the cost has gone down over time,” said Evers.
“I think we need to be more mindful of the affordability of testing and not the price.
There’s still a lot of work to do.”
For more information, visit www.sciencetranslationalmedicine.com.