Only in the world of medicine would Dr. Vivian Lee's question have seemed radical. She wanted to know: What do the goods and services provided by the hospital system where she is chief executive actually cost?
Most businesses know the cost of everything that goes into producing what they sell — essential information for setting prices. Medicine is different. Hospitals know what they are paid by insurers, but it bears little relationship to their costs.
No one on Dr. Lee's staff at the University of Utah Health Care could say what a minute in an M.R.I. machine or an hour in the operating room actually costs. They chuckled when she asked.
But now, thanks to a project Dr. Lee set in motion after that initial query several years ago, the hospital is getting answers, information that is not only saving money but also improving care.
The effort is attracting the attention of institutions from Harvard to the Mayo Clinic. The secretary of health and human services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, visited last month to see the results. While costs at other academic medical centers in the area have increased an average of 2.9 percent a year over the past few years, the University of Utah's have declined by 0.5 percent a year. "We have bent the cost curve," Dr. Lee said.
Inpatient hospital costs account for nearly 30 percent of health care spending in the United States and are increasing by a little less than 2 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
The cost issue has taken on new urgency as the Affordable Care Act accelerates the move away from fee-for-service medicine and toward a system where hospitals will get one payment for the entire course of a treatment, like hospitalization for pneumonia. Medicare, too, is setting new goals for payments based on the value of care.
Under such a system, if a hospital does additional tests and procedures or if patients get infections or are readmitted, the hospital bears the cost. To make money, medical centers have to figure out what it actually costs to provide care and how to spend less while maintaining or improving outcomes.
The linchpin of this effort at the University of Utah Health Care is a computer program — still a work in progress — with 200 million rows of costs for items like drugs, medical devices, a doctor's time in the operating room and each member of the staff's time. The software also tracks such outcomes as days in the hospital and readmissions. A pulldown menu compares each doctor's costs and outcomes with others' in the department.
The hospital has been able to calculate, for instance, the cost per minute in the emergency room (82 cents), in the surgical intensive care unit ($1.43), and in the operating room for an orthopedic surgery case ($12).
With such information, as well as data on the cost of labor, supplies and labs, the hospital has pared excess expenses and revised numerous practices for more efficient and effective care.
Michael Porter, an economist and professor at Harvard Business School, called the accomplishments "epic progress."