Economy tanking visits to doctors

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Americans aren’t going to the doctor as often, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting healthier.

The average adult makes about four visits a year to a doctor, nurse or other medical provider, down from five visits in 2001, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“On the face of it you’d say we’re going in the right direction,” said Thomas McAuliffe, health policy analyst with the Missouri Foundation for Health. “Then you start thinking of the economy.”

People who are uninsured generally avoid medical care as long as possible. Just 12 percent of uninsured Americans received routine check-ups in 2010, according to the report, which did not break down the data by state.

Some findings from the report confirm commonly held beliefs — women are more likely than men to visit the doctor and the number of medical visits and hospital stays increases with age.

The report also uncovered some lesser-known statistics.

Hispanics make the fewest trips to the doctor of any ethnic group. And more than half of the population did not take any prescription drugs in the last year.

The slowing in medical care usage could also be an indication of employers cutting back on their contributions to insurance coverage. And workers are keeping more money in health savings accounts instead of using it for co-pays.

“More and more Americans are putting off care until it’s urgent,” McAuliffe said.

In a few years, there could be a rush on hospitals and doctors’ offices when all the provisions of health care reform kick in, including the requirement that most people have health insurance by 2014.

That could be trouble for insurers and providers if people show up with health problems that have gone unchecked, McAuliffe said.

“What if you have all the precursors of a chronic condition or heart disease and you put it off for a year or two and you’ve blown past the manageable stage?” McAuliffe said. “Our system may be taxed for the time being.”

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