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.

Are you overpaying for common medical scans? Hospitals and medical facilities negotiate prices 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, says 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, say, a head versus a hip. Using a contrast agent to make organs and tissues more visible on the scan also bumps up the price. The good news for consumers: "You can get really good value in almost every city in America if you shop around," Dr. Rice says. Here are some sample prices and money-saving tips.

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MRI

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What it is:

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, provides detailed pictures of internal organs, tissue, and bone.

What it costs: It's usually more expensive than other types of scans. Healthcare Bluebook's national fair price for an abdominal MRI (without contrast), for example, is $776. For a brain MRI (with and without contrast), it's $1,261. Fair prices in your area may be somewhat higher or lower.

Tip: If a medical facility quotes a steep price, ask your doctor to recommend a place that's just as good, Dr. Rice suggests. You could save yourself a bundle.

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X-Ray

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What it is:

It's the most common type of scan. X-rays can help identify problems like bone fractures, lung-tissue scarring, and tumors in breast tissue.

What it costs: Expect to pay around $47 for an abdominal x-ray, $59 for a chest x-ray and $77 for an x-ray of your ribs. A screening mammogram is $264. (Because it's a preventive service, most health plans cover it fully, at no out-of-pocket costs to you.) A bilateral diagnostic mammogram, used to evaluate suspicious breast changes, is $321.

Tip: Using an in-network facility is no guarantee that you'll get the best price in the market.

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CT Scan

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What it is:

A computerized tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) yields sharper images of soft tissue and blood vessels than traditional x-rays do.

What it costs: Prices range from $410 to $2,334, a 469% difference, says Change Healthcare Corp., which tracks health price variations. What's a fair price? About $146 for a CT to measure calcium deposits in your coronary arteries and $1,418 for a whole-body PET (positron emission tomography) scan with CT imaging, according to Healthcare Bluebook.

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

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Ultrasound

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What it is:

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

What it costs: It all depends on how the scan is being used. Examples of fair prices include: transvaginal ultrasound, $145; fetal ultrasound, $281; and ultrasound-guided biopsy, $396.

Tip: "Always ask about prices before you get care, and make sure it's a reasonable price," Dr. Rice advises.

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Angiography

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What it is:

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.

What it costs: Healthcare Bluebook's national fair price for bilateral arm or leg angiography is $415. It's about the same—$412—for aortic angiography, a test for tracking blood flow through the body's largest artery. For a coronary angiogram, the national fair price is $7,545.

Tip: With most medical imaging, there's no relationship between price and quality, says Dr. Rice, 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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What it is:

This type of scan provides a continuous video image, like a motion picture. Doctors can see the gastrointestinal tract at work, insert catheters, and guide joint replacements, among other uses.

What it costs: Healthcare Bluebook's national fair price is for fluoroscopy is $101.

Tip: Don't be afraid to ask for prices. "The ones that have the best prices will be happy to tell you and they do it very efficiently," Dr. Rice observes.

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