Although patient volume appears to have bounced back in recent months from recession-related declines, patients are still visiting the doctor far less often than they were a decade ago, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Among all people aged 18 to 64, for example, the average number of medical provider visits per year dropped from 4.8 in 2001 to 3.9 in 2010, according to the report. According to analysts, the trend could mean that more Americans are thinking twice before seeing a doctor for minor illnesses and saving time and money by taking care of themselves at home.
"Where there are good products out there across the counter, before, they were going to get the prescription written," Kathleen Stoll, deputy executive director of Families USA, told the Washington Times.
But while more judicious use of healthcare and insurance benefits may be a positive sign among the relatively healthy, higher out-of-pocket expenses could also be keeping patients from getting care they may really need.
"We've heard that a lot of places and from a number of physicians that patients are canceling appointments often because they don't have the money for the copay," Richard Aghababian, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, told the Patriot Ledger.
The risk is especially great, Aghababian added, for people with established health problems, such as high blood pressure who need to be monitored by a medical provider. In 2010, for example, 38.6 percent of people in poverty did not visit a medical provider, compared with 18.5 percent of higher-income individuals. In 2010, only 11.7 percent of all uninsured adults received routine checkups, and that figure worsens with health status, as just 24.4 percent among uninsured adults in poor health received checkups.
With more than one in five Americans with private insurance now on high-deductible plans, it's more important to educate patients about the purpose of their visits and why they are necessary.
"People are less dependent on going to the doctor for every sniffle, and that might be a good thing," Stoll told the Washington Times. "On the other hand, people might be saying 'I can't afford my preventive checkup,'" leading to more serious, expensive care in the long term.