6 Key Medical Scans and What They Should Cost

You can save hundreds—even thousands—of dollars on medical imaging tests and procedures by shopping around.

Hospitals and medical facilities negotiate prices of medical scans with health plans but rarely advertise their rates.

If you're not careful, you could pay 300% to 500% more than what the imaging center down the block is charging for the same scan, said Jeffrey Rice, MD, PhD, CEO of Healthcare Bluebook, a guide to "fair" prices for health services.

Prices also vary by body part, reflecting the resources required to scan a head versus a hip, for example. Using a contrast agent to make organs and tissues more visible on the scan also bumps up the price.

"You can get really good value in almost every city in America if you shop around," Dr. Rice said. Here are some sample prices and money-saving tips.

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MRI

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Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, provides detailed pictures of internal organs, tissue, and bone with the use of a magnet and radio waves, per MedlinePlus.

It's usually more expensive than other types of scans. Healthcare Bluebook indicated that you could pay anywhere from $601 to more than $3,837 for an abdominal MRI with and without contrast in Tennessee, as an example.

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X-Ray

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An x-ray is the most common type of scan. X-rays can help identify problems like bone fractures, lung-tissue scarring, and tumors in breast tissue.

For fair market price in South Carolina, you can expect to pay around $61 for an abdominal x-ray, $72 for a chest x-ray and $93 for an x-ray of your ribs.

A 2D bilateral diagnostic mammogram, used to evaluate suspicious breast changes, could be close to $201; a 2D bilateral screening mammogram is approximately $165. (Because a screening mammogram a preventive service, most health plans cover it fully with no out-of-pocket costs to you. You would need to check with your health insurance company to confirm potential costs.)

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CT Scan

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According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), a computerized tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) yields sharper images of soft tissue and blood vessels than traditional x-rays do.

The fair price would be about $557 for a brain CT with and without contrast or around $291 for a CT scan needed for a needle biopsy in the California area, according to Healthcare Bluebook.

"Even on the inexpensive stuff, if you go to the wrong place you could spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars too much," Dr. Rice said.

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Ultrasound

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This type of scan captures images in real time. Healthcare providers use it to examine internal organs, monitor blood flow, and guide needles into the body to extract tissue samples for biopsy.

The cost all depends on how the scan is being used. According to Medicare.gov, a fetal ultrasound could run at a starting price of $156 or more while an ultrasound-guided breast biopsy might start at a cost $752.

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Angiography

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This scan uses injected dye to view the inside of arteries and blood vessels. The x-ray, or angiogram, can show blockages, aneurysms, bleeding in the brain, and other problems.

New Choice Health, a site designed to provide consumers with information about medical procedures including prices, indicated that the average price for an arm angiography is approximately $4,000. The site noted about $5,900 for aortic angiography, a test for tracking blood flow through the body's largest artery.

With most medical imaging, there's no relationship between price and quality, Dr. Rice said, although angiography may be a "bit of an exception" because this invasive procedure is often performed in an acute-care setting that can demand a higher price.

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Fluoroscopy

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A fluoroscopy provides a continuous video image, like a movie, according to MedlinePlus. Healthcare providers can see the gastrointestinal tract at work, insert catheters, and guide joint replacements, among other uses.

Per MDsave, the cost of fluoroscopy can be anywhere from $145 to $1,214, depending on the provider you see and where they're located.

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What To Consider About Medical Scans and Costs

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In situations where imaging is immediately necessary (e.g., appendicitis, hernias, head injuries, or other potential surgical emergencies), receiving life-saving medical attention in the moment should be prioritized over discussing costs.

For imaging that isn't required right away, however, you may have more time to discuss or negotiate costs. "Always ask about prices before you get care, and make sure it's a reasonable price," Dr. Rice advised. "The ones that have the best prices will be happy to tell you and they do it very efficiently."

Additionally, using an in-network facility is no guarantee that you'll get the best price in the market so it may be worth looking at out-of-network facilities as well for price comparisons.

In any case, if a medical facility quotes a steep price, ask your healthcare provider to recommend a place that's just as good, Dr. Rice suggested. You just might end up saving yourself a bundle or two.

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