TODAY   |  October 30, 2013

Surgery auctions seek to revolutionize health care

A new website is allowing doctors to bid to offer elective surgeries at lower rates, though some are concerned about the quality of the procedures. NBC’s Janet Shamlian reports and Johns Hopkins University associate professor Marty Makary tells TODAY’s Matt Lauer what patients should look for when using these sites.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> you want doctors to try to outbid each other to become your surgeon? it's happening.

>> reporter: it's a whole new kind of doctor-patient relationship, usually associated more with fine arts than the medical arts . there's a website called medibid where doctors can auction their surgical services.

>> for the person looking for what have to offer, it's a good way to find each other.

>> he's an orthopedist in san antonio and thinks it's a win-win.

>> my goal is to take care of individual patients as if they're family and i charge a reasonable fee for high quality service.

>> reporter: it seems more like ebay than er but with medical costs soaring, it's catching on.

>> i was in constant pain.

>> reporter: he needed a hip replacement . his health insurance wouldn't cover it and the surgery was $70,000. he found medibid and explained what he needed done. dr. harris came back with a bid of 21,000 for the same procedure.

>> every review i read was positive so i knew this was going to be my guy.

>> i was under bid by another surgeon by i think $6,000 but he found value in what i had to offer and came to me for that reason.

>> reporter: dr. harris says potential patients have to come see him for a full evaluation before he'll take their case medi bid doesn't check out the doctors that bid on the site. it's up for patients to do their research.

>> that's a lot of risk to take.

>> reporter: he says the idea of bidding on the internet may sound great to some people but cheaper in medicine often mean not as good.

>> we have more information on a car at a auction than a surgeon at an auction.

>> reporter: but he is happy. he has a new hip and saved $50,000.

>> it cost $21,000 for the surgery just as it was advertised on the site. it all happened smoothly. it's a great thing.

>> reporter: for today, nbc news, houston.

>>> he is an assistant professor of surgery at john hopkins and author of unaccountable, what hospitals won't tell you and how transparency can revolutionize health care . good to see you. that's a lot of money to save. i'm kweworried about the quality side.

>> it's one of the places where you can't get a bid on the service. people are saying we want more free market with price transparency and there's demand for that out there. if you're paying more, maybe you're getting more quality but people are hungry for price transparency out there in some fraction of the health care market.

>> the expression is you get what you pay for. i'm okay with that when i'm shopping for a car or a vacation or something. i'm not sure i'm okay with that when i'm shopping for surgery.

>> one thing that's missing from these websites is any metric or quality or performance. if you're just shopping on the basis of price, it creates a market incentive to cut corners on price. i'm sure there's folks out there doing quality procedures on his websites but you don't know. you're flying blind .

>> if you're considering bidding online for surgery, what do you need to know going in and what questions do you need to ask the person who is doing the bidding.

>> same thing as with any procedure. how many have you done? what's the back up? what happens if something goes wrong? do you have another surgeon or partner or another hospital you can be transferred to? ask a nurse that doesn't work with the doctor, who would you have to do your surgery?

>> the guy in the piece was having hip replacement surgery . what surgeries would you say it's okay to use a website like this? what would not be okay?

>> i'm concerned about any website that doesn't list quality metrics but i would think a very low risk, perhaps a skin tag removal when you're on a trip. if you have family at a destination and you're not going there totally blind to who -- what the culture is there, a lot of people are going overseas for their medical care and the ama and cdc put out resources now saying here are important questions you should ask. up to 1 million people travel overseas for medical procedures.

>> you and i both agree we'll see more of this in the future.