NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Consumers appear to be quite adept at comparison shopping. However, when it comes to shopping around for the best prices for medical procedures or treatments, few people who seek out the numbers find them.

According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 31% of participants reported seeing information in the last year that compared health insurance plans, doctors and hospitals. Fewer than 20% of those surveyed reported seeing information that compared prices for quality among health plans and providers.

Some 64% of the survey participants said that it is difficult to find the cost of medical treatments and procedures provided by doctors or hospitals, and a third of participants reported that it is “somewhat easy” to find the cost of medical treatments. However, 76% of uninsured survey participants reported that it is difficult to find cost information.

In a survey by Public Agenda, 56% of Americans have searched for prices before getting medical care. The survey also showed that about half of Americans are not aware that prices vary for the same services by different doctors.

While some price comparisons may be difficult to find, there are price comparison web sites (and even bidding ones) out there. For a cost of $25 for one medical request for bids or a monthly fee of $4.95 for a 12-month term for unlimited requests, MediBid offers patients with cash the opportunity to have doctors bid on performing a procedure or surgery. Pokitdok searches shows average cash prices paid for procedures, and Clear Health Costs provides the cash price and highest and lowest prices as well as what Medicare pays for various procedures.

Robin James, an office manager in San Francisco, searched for months for an affordable therapist after losing her firefighter husband, who died from injuries sustained from falling from a burning building. Using the healthcare shopping comparison website PokitDok, she found a psychologist whose hourly rate was within her budget. James saved more than $50 per session.

Price comparison shopping for medical procedures may be all the more necessary, as most Americans don't have cash on hand to handle a hefty medical bill. When asked if they could pay an unexpected medical bill of $1,500, only 26% of those surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they could pay in full, 27% said they would pay over time, 10% would have to borrow money, and 26% would not be able to pay it. Further, only 57% of respondents said they could easily afford to pay their deductible, and 64% reported that they could easily afford the cost of their insurance.

“We’re shifting to more of a cash based health economy where non-acute procedures often fall below the deductible threshold, like orthopedic surgery or imagery,” says Lisa Maki, co-founder and CEO, PokitDok. “This is forcing consumers to comparison shop using services like those supported by PokitDok, where they’ll find, book and pay for treatment all in one place,” Maki says.

Tight finances may also interfere with consumers’ ability to pay for unexpected medical expenses. Only 68% of those surveyed felt at least “somewhat confident ” that they will be able to afford an unexpected medical expense, and just over half of the participants, 55%, felt that way for a major illness that required hospitalization. Another 30% were not competent that they could pay for an unusual medical expense, and 44% said they were not confident that they can pay for a major illness or injury that required a hospitalization.

“Most providers we speak to are willing to quote a price with as much as a 15 [to] 40% discount in exchange for payment at the time of booking or service,” Maki says.

Savings can be substantial, says Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of Clear Health Costs, where prices for an MRI span $300 to $6,000 and cardio stress tests $100 to $2,504.

It is unclear whether not the prices are correlated with better technology or medical practitioners with better track records reading results.

These numbers make it clear that shopping around may be helpful for consumers. However, the Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only about 6% of people used quality information when making a decision about a hospital or doctor, and only 3% reported using price information when making a decision about a physician.

—Written by S.Z. Berg for MainStreet