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SALT LAKE CITY — A new mobile application could help patients and consumers lower their cost of medical care.

On Wednesday, UnitedHealthcare announced a free app that allows people to shop for and compare nearby medical services. The Health4Me app is designed to help consumers make more informed decisions about their health care.

The app, a free mobile service for iPhone and Android devices, offers consumers the ability to search and locate nearby health care providers, including convenience care, urgent care and emergency care facilities, explained UnitedHealthcare spokesman Will Shanley.

The service also offers information on market average prices for more than 520 medical services, providing a comprehensive view of what consumers should expect throughout their course of treatment so consumers can better anticipate and manage health care expenses based on local estimates, he said.

“People are wanting this information to make more informed choices,” Shanley said.

The cost of health care in Utah and other states nationwide can vary widely, he said, with significant price variations for services at doctors’ offices and hospitals.

As an example, Shanley noted that the total cost for knee MRI in Salt Lake City at hospitals within a 25-mile radius could range from $454 to $1,310, while back surgery or lumbar fusion ranged between $37,075 and $56,278.

Using the public version of the myHealthcare Cost Estimator, consumers can make more educated and financially prudent health care decisions for themselves and their families, he said, with UnitedHealthcare members having access to an even more detailed, upgraded version.

“It’s really impacting their decisions on both the quality as well as the cost side of it,” Shanley said. “As consumers move to more consumer-directed health plans that have higher deductibles that are linked with health savings accounts, it’s really, really important that consumers have information on cost and quality (of health care.)”

Based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, UnitedHealthcare has more than 400,000 Utah members. The estimates are personalized for the individual’s own health plan and based on contracted rates with health care providers and facilities, Shanley explained. The cost information is based on local averages for each service or procedure.

Despite sometimes dramatic price differences for health care services nationwide, Shanley said there seems to be no resultant improvement in patient outcomes for services performed by higher-priced providers than those that were less expensive.

For example, the cost for an uncomplicated childbirth, including prenatal and postnatal care, at hospitals in the New York City area fell between $9,699 and $29,076, he explained. Other cities show similarly widespread disparities by procedure, he noted.

Originally introduced in 2012 exclusively for UnitedHealthcare members, the myHealthcare Cost Estimator has generated more than 900,000 downloads and $2.3 billion in estimates, with information on 726,000 health care professionals and 5,600 hospitals, Shanley said.

The public version was launched to provide even more consumers with the information necessary to improve their health care service choices — and hopefully their outcomes, Shanley said — in addition to lowering overall health care-related expenses.

“We know that getting this information in the hands of consumers, it’s going to make the (health care) system more affordable,” he said.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: JasenLee1