Amino launches free, online healthcare cost comparison tool

By Jonah Comstock
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Amino, a San Francisco-based startup that has built a free, online direct-to-consumer tool for finding a doctor, has added a cost estimator module to its offering. To begin with, the feature will calculate costs for 49 procedures and treatments, though more will be added over time. It includes 500,000 doctors nationwide and 129 health insurers.

The company uses claims data, algorithms, and human statisticians to calculate costs and quality scores. For the Cost Estimator, they analyzed $860 billion dollars in claims, comprising hundreds of millions of claims.

A number of healthcare price transparency tools have been offered over the years, including some very high-profile businesses like Castlight Health. But Amino CEO David Vivero says Amino stands out because other tools are so often offered by providers, insurers, and employers. A free tool on the Internet is going to more effectively reach consumers where they are, he believes. In addition, Amino's tool pairs cost transparency with quality transparency.

"It’s not really transparency if it’s hidden behind all sorts of password protections and portals and it’s so difficult to find that you can’t really gain access to the information," he said. "So the first thing we do that’s very different is that we’re going direct to consumers and making this information available to everyone on the web for free. ... The second thing that we do is we integrate our cost information into a very useful companion product. It incorporates cost and experience information and some quality measures, and you can book an appointment directly from the app. So the experience for us is not just about cost and cost transparency, but about integrating that with the overall patient experience and putting it in a place where consumers go to consume it."

That's not just a guess, Vivero said. Amino did market research to find out how consumers who do comparison shopping for healthcare behave.

"We interviewed 1,500 or so consumers and we asked them 'Have you price shopped in the past year?'," he said. "Forty percent of people said that they did. Well, what was interesting is that 60 percent of those people went to the internet to try to find this information. Only 8 percent went to an employer-sponsored portal, which is typically where healthcare transparency has been marketed these past few years."

Amino doesn't have a native app, but its website is optimized for mobile viewing. Vivero said it was important that the tool be accessible from the doctor's office itself, where patients often need to make treatment decisions.

"if you can search Facebook or Instagram from your doctor’s front desk, on your phone, you can pull up our app as well, he said. "So what’s great about the convenience and the distribution of Amino directly to consumers is that you can have this conversation with your doctor in the waiting room or in the consult room as they’re giving you a list of recommendations. And as such, our hope is that we can help people prevent out-of-network referrals that really cost them a lot of money, but also [help people] incorporate the idea of cost and quality into a discussion with their doctors."

The tool is designed to be able to show both overall costs and what's often more relevant to the consumer: their out-of-pocket costs. While it's most accurate for a consumer who has all the details of their health plan, including how much of their deductible they've used, the cost transparency tool will give estimates even if the user only knows the name of their plan. Users can see costs displayed on a map, so they can make decisions about how far they're willing to travel to save on a given procedure. And different doctors are color-coded green, yellow, and red based on their price relative to the region average.

Amino is still developing its business model, but Vivero says he's committed to never include advertising or allow a provider to buy a more prominent ranking. Instead, they plan to embrace a freemium model wherein they will introduce bonus features that users can pay for. The search tools will remain free.

"We haven’t monetized the site yet. There’s not the same pressure to do that because it’s such a long term bet that we and the investors are making," Vivero said. "The goal is to build a product and a set of features that consumers trust and recommend and flock to for their healthcare decision-making because it lets them know that they’re making the best possible choice. Based on that relationship we think there’s numerous services that we can introduce into the marketplace, so we’ll be doing that over time."