Why There’s a Decline in Doctor’s Visits

October 31, 2011

Patient visit data raises two key questions: why the decline, and exactly how concerned should practices be?

Consistent with the last few years, practices have experienced a small decline in patient visits over the last 12 months, according to multiple studies.

A report released earlier this month by JP Morgan Chase investment analyst John Rex, based on data from Thomson Reuters Healthcare and his own estimates, showed an 8 percent decline in office visits per full-time equivalent physician for September 2011 compared with a year earlier, American Medical News reported. A little more than a year after the Wall Street Journal reported Americans were using fewer medical services, the latest earnings from four big insurers show “scant” signs of an uptick in healthcare utilization. UnitedHealth Group representatives noted “some evidence” of increased doctor visits and outpatient services, but said it was still quite a bit less than expected, while WellPoint reported overall use of medical services was “stable to declining” except for pharmacy, which was modestly up. Aetna also reported “lower than projected” utilization.

“I don't think we'll see the same utilization patterns again," Michael Thompson, a Ne/w York-based principal for PwC's Global Human Resources Division, told American Medical News. "Healthcare is not free anymore. That has an impact on how people are engaging the system."

It’s understandable that higher insurance premiums coupled with a depressed economy would keep patients from visiting physicians, but what does the latest data mean for your practice?

For one thing, primary-care providers should brace for seeing sicker patients/ According to experts, people are more prone to wait until they have an urgent health problem before they see a physician.

State medical groups, associations, and practices are coming up with some creative ways to keep patient visits up.

One story that caught our eye this morning chronicled the state of Connecticut’s efforts - made possible by a partnership between the Connecticut State Medical Society Independent Practice Association and the Connecticut State Medical Society - to form a health insurance co-op. This month the organization filed an application with the federal government for loans and grants to help start HealthyCT, a nonprofit health insurance co-op for Connecticut.

The co-op would use profits to lower premiums, improve benefits, and improve the quality of members' healthcare. According to a fact sheet on www.healthcare.gov, the Affordable Care Act website, co-ops should are intended to provide better coordination of consumers' medical care.

The co-op will seek to control costs by using the "medical home" model, in which each patient has a personal physician to oversee and coordinate visits to specialists, tests and other aspects of care. HealthyCT will be created using the knowledge of the physicians organizing it about where to find efficiencies and cut waste, David D. Thompson Jr., head of the Connecticut State Medical Society Independent Practice Association, told The Day Connecticut.

"That's exactly why these two organizations are doing this," Thompson said. "We're always being told that if we want to have a say in how things are done, we need to do it ourselves. We want to be able to design a health insurance program in a way we think is better."

Let us know what you think. How big of a problem are declining doctors’ visits? What can a practice do about it? Post your response below.