More employees are willing to comparison shop when it comes to health insurance, despite struggling with basic insurance concepts and terminology. They also are willing to use the Internet and other forms of technology to learn about their options, even though they would rather be doing almost anything else during open enrollment.

These were the findings of UnitedHealthcare’s first Consumer Sentiment Survey. The insurance giant used ORC International’s Telephone CARAVAN omnibus to survey 1,011 adults over the age of 18 in the U.S.

The number of respondents who comparison shop for healthcare is rising. Thirty-two percent of respondents have used the Internet or mobile apps during the last year to compare the cost of medical services. That’s up from 14% in a similar 2012 survey from UnitedHealthcare.

TDespite this confidence, many respondents don’t fully understand what they are buying. According to the survey, only 7% of respondents could successfully define four basic health insurance concepts: plan premium, deductible, co-insurance and out-of-pocket maximum. More than 60% of respondents could define “plan premium” and “deductible,” but only 36% could define “out-of-pocket maximum” and only 32% knew the meaning of “co-insurance.”

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Given this lack of understanding, 25% of respondents said they would rather file their annual income taxes than select a health plan.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

This does not surprise Craig Hankins, vice president of digital products for UnitedHealthcare.

“Healthcare and health insurance is not something that people seek to understand. You understand it when you actually experience it,” Hankins says. “[When you receive care],, you [have] to understand the ins and outs of the healthcare system and how your benefit claims work — how they apply to a specific type of medical claim and what you have to pay. It’s very complex.”

The use of technology such as websites and smartphone apps to comparison shop for health care is a trend, especially among young people. Nearly half – 47% -- of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 said they have used online or mobile resources to comparison shop for healthcare services or treatments.

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“People are living much of their lives through their smartphones,” Hankins says. “We are seeing greater adoption of our mobile apps, and respondents are starting to seek out and expect their health insurer to offer these kinds of resources. They are more comfortable using these resources as a means of getting this information.”

That said, the survey reveals that respondents prefer to speak and interact with a flesh-and-blood human being to address a specific healthcare or insurance issue. Nearly 80% say they prefer consulting with a live customer service representative, with e-mail or instant messaging tied for second place with 7% each.

Interest in new health-related technologies is solid. Fifty-six percent of full-time employees in the survey say they would wear a fitness tracker as part of a workplace wellness program. And when it comes to telemedicine, 37% of respondents say they are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to use a smartphone, tablet or computer to access healthcare services via video.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the increased utilization of digital resources like the website and mobile apps, but also the increase in the number of people using other resources for looking at costs and quality,” Harkin says. “It means they are more aware that these resources are out there and they can find information that is presented in ways they can understand.”

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