The Average American Doesn’t Know How Much These Common Medical Procedures Actually Cost

It’s hard to explain why health care costs in America are so outrageous. The United States is unique in that it doesn’t have a centralized, national health care system. And the system we do have — a semi-free market with plenty of regulation and single-payer systems for some — produces mixed outcomes. For that reason, it’s hard to get a fix on how much you’re paying for services — or how much you should be paying.

The price of an ER visit, for example, can vary to an incredible degree. In one city or hospital, it’ll cost $1,000. In another, it’ll be $5,000. And nobody seems to be able to explain why. It’s confusing, frustrating, and above all, expensive.

When you’re ready to make a big purchase, you typically have a ballpark figure of what you intend to spend. It might be $20,000 for a car, for example. But when it comes to health care? It’s an entirely different ballgame.

A recent report by InsuranceQuotes.com drives that home. The report looks at a variety of health care services and the degree to which the average American overestimates or underestimates the costs. That can lead to a pleasant surprise when you get the bill — or nauseating horror.

“Americans often underestimate the cost of health care. They also overestimate the price of some common health care procedures,” the report said. “We conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans to find out what they think health care should cost and then compared it to the reality of today’s medical price tags.”

Here are 18 common medical procedures most of us get wrong on price. How much are you paying for these?

1. Nonemergency visit to urgent care: Overestimate by 50%

A hospital worker pushes a cart past the patient information center

A hospital worker pushes a cart past the patient information center. | Mike Simons/Getty Images

We’ll kick things off with the good news. That is, there are many common medical procedures that cost less than you’d think. A nonemergency visit to urgent care is the most overestimated health care cost out there, per InsuranceQuotes’ report. Americans overestimate this cost by 50%. These costs can vary wildly depending on what you’re dealing with, but the average bill is between $100 and $200.

Next: Do you dread going to the dentist?

2. Dental exam: Overestimate by 42%

A dentist examines an x-ray

A dentist examines an x-ray. | iStock.com

You know you should go to the dentist. But many of us put it off. The dentist’s office is, after all, one of the least-fun places in modern America. It’s often painful. The hygienist shames you for not flossing. There are a lot of reasons not to go. But cost shouldn’t be one of them. The average dental exam costs 42% less than expected, per InsuranceQuotes.

Next: Maybe the flu shot isn’t so bad after all?

3. Flu shot: Overestimate by 41%

A doctor readying a syringe

A doctor readying a syringe | iStock.com

Like dentist visits, getting a shot isn’t fun. A lot of people aren’t stoked to head to a doctor’s office, finger through an old copy of Highlights magazine, and then have a syringe plunged into their arm. And when you add in the fact that you have to pay for it? You can’t blame somebody for skipping it. But a flu shot is 41% cheaper than expected. The average cost is only around $15 to $40.

Next: Getting a picture of your brain isn’t cheap.

4. MRI: Overestimate by 38%

brain imaging

Brain imaging | iStock.com

MRIs are intimidating for a number of reasons. First of all, you’re probably freaking out about what the MRI might reveal. Then, you’re shoved in that coffin-like tube. None of it is fun, and you know it’s not going to be cheap. But there’s good news. A MRI is 38% cheaper than most of us anticipate. That doesn’t mean it’s cheap — the average MRI is more than $2,600.

5. Doctor’s visit: Overestimate by 29%

Medical physician doctor woman writing with laptop on table

A doctor’s visit | iStock.com

A plain old vanilla doctor’s visit — that’s not too bad, right? If you’re strapped for cash or lack insurance, it’s a much bigger expense than you’d think. But that perception is, to an extent, warped. The average doctor’s visit, per InsuranceQuotes, is 29% less than the average person thinks. Again, the cost can vary in a huge way. You’re still most likely looking at a bill of a couple hundred bucks.

6. Bypass surgery: Overestimate by 13%

Operating tools

Operating tools | Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Most of us won’t need bypass surgery. So that’s a good thing. The bad news for those who will need it is there’s no real way to bypass the costs. And the average price of a bypass surgery is well into the five and sometimes six figures. But many Americans think it will be more than that, per InsuranceQuotes, by 13%. That’s not a huge overestimate, but it’s still substantial.

7. 30-day prescription for painkillers: Overestimate by 10%

pain killer pills on blue background

Painkillers | iStock.com/BCFC

America has a problem with painkillers. They’re as pervasive in our communities today as any other drug or illicit substance. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we are more or less on the mark when it comes to estimating the cost of a 30-day supply. Americans are within 10% when guesstimating painkiller costs, according to InsuranceQuotes.

8. Nonemergency ER visit: Overestimate by 7%

Hospital entrance | Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

Yet again, we’re faced with a cost that can vary wildly depending on a number of factors. Your location, illness or particular health issue, and several other variables will ultimately determine your ER bills. But interestingly enough, Americans are pretty good at guessing how much a nonemergency visit to the ER will cost. According to the report, Americans overestimate these costs by 7%.

9. C-section: Overestimate by 1%

surgical tools

Surgical tools | iStock.com

When it comes to guessing health care costs, the apex of the average American’s accuracy lands on one particular procedure: the C-section. The average American overestimates the price of a typical C-section by only 1% — closer than any other procedure on the list. They’re not cheap, however. The average C-section will still run you roughly the cost of a BMW — around $50,000.

10. Knee replacement: Underestimate by 5%

A man experiencing knee issues

A man experiences knee issues. | iStock.com

Now, we’re into the weeds. These are the procedures that cost more than we expect. That means for the remainder of the list, you can end up with a surprisingly inflated hospital bill as we tend to low-ball these costs. First up is a knee replacement, which tends to be 5% more expensive than anticipated. The average cost of a knee replacement is around $50,000.

11. 30-day prescription for blood pressure medication: Underestimate by 9%

white pills spread out on a table

Pills on a table | iStock.com/loooby

Earlier, we discussed the costs of a 30-day supply of painkillers. In that case, people tended to overestimate the costs. When it comes to blood pressure medications, though, it’s a different story. The cost for a 30-day supply of blood pressure medicine is 9% more than expected, according to InsuranceQuotes. Depending on the specific medicine and your needs, these costs will vary.

12. Childbirth: Underestimate by 9%

A pregnant woman

A pregnant woman | iStock.com/tamaravidmar

Although Americans can estimate the cost of a C-section birth with sniper-like accuracy, they’re a little farther from the target when it comes to a traditional vaginal birth. According to the report, Americans underestimate how much a vaginal birth will cost by 9%. Although there are many variables at play, the average cost for a vaginal birth is around $19,000.

13. Eye exam: Underestimate by 11%

man getting an eye exam at the optometrist's office

A man gets an eye exam. | iStock.com

Eye exams aren’t usually as dreadful as dental exams. But we’re still reluctant to have them done. It eats into your day, and you have to shell out for the bills — so, why bother? Well, you have to get it done at some point, but be prepared for it to cost a little more than you think. The report said the average American underestimates the cost of an eye exam by 11%.

14. Strep test: Underestimate by 24%

Recruits get a throat swabbing

Recruits get a throat swabbing. | Cpl. Anthony D. Pike/Getty Images

Getting a strep test isn’t something you’ll have to get done all that often, and when you do, it’s not really fun. But there’s one thing you’ll need to keep in mind: It’s going to be more costly than you think. The report said a strep test will run you 24% more than the average American anticipates. It’s hard to nail down exactly what you’ll pay, but at CVS, for example, it’ll cost somewhere around $100.

15. ER visit: Underestimate by 34%

ER entrance from the street

ER entrance | Bryan Steffy/Getty Images

We’ve discussed the costs of a few types of doctor’s visits. That includes visits to the ER (nonemergency) and urgent care (also nonemergency). But what about a legit medical emergency? One that requires a full-on ER visit? That’s going to cost you — and way more than you expected. The report says ER bills, on average, are 34% more expensive than people anticipate.

16. Colonoscopy: Underestimate by 65%

doctor talking to a male patient in an exam room

A doctor talks to a patient. | iStock.com

Colonoscopies are invasive and shocking. And that’s just the actual procedure. But it might feel like a reprobing once you get the bill, which is 65% more than the average person anticipates. So, how much should you plan on paying for a pipe inspection? It’ll vary, but you’re probably looking at a cost of a few thousand dollars. Bankrate pegs the average cost at just over $3,000.

17. 1-day hospital stay: Underestimate by 85%

A nurse works alongside a patient

A nurse works alongside a patient. | Mike Simons/Getty Images

If a doctor or nurse tells you you’re going to have to stay in the hospital, prepare for a boring night — and sticker shock. In fact, you should use that free time to try and come to terms with how much it’s going to cost. On average, it’ll cost 85% more than you think, per InsuranceQuotes. How much are we talking? In some cases, it’s going to be around $10,000 per night.

18. Appendectomy: Underestimate by 115%

Medical team preparing equipment for surgery

A medical team prepares for surgery. | iStock.com/Hin255

According to the report, the single health care cost the average person underestimates the most is an appendectomy. Unfortunately, the appendectomy, or removal of the appendix, isn’t really the sort of thing you can make a choice to have done. If it needs to come out, they’re going to snag it. And it’ll cost 115% more than you think. On average, it’s around $33,000.

See the complete report at InsuranceQuotes.com.

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