Doctor visits have steadily declined since 2007. Your first thought may be, “well of course, they’re just finding information online — or getting advice from friends.” But surprisingly, surveys show they’re not doing that either.
The Center for Studying Health System Change performed a massive survey of 17,000 patients and released their findings two months ago in November of 2011. They found that between 2007 and 2010 visits to physicians dropped 4%. Surprisingly, the percentage of adults who sought information about a personal health concern in the previous 12 months decreased from 55.5% to 50% in the same period.
I find this study surprising for a number of reasons — including who is searching for health information. We tend to think that the number of older Americans and those with chronic illness who are looking for health information should be on the rise — especially with our aging baby boomer population. But that demographic, along with those who have lower education levels, have shown the largest decrease of interest in health information. While searches for health information declined across every demographic, not surprisingly, those with high education levels remained the most likely to be interested in their health.
This all seems very disturbing, doesn’t it? It’s easy to worry that the general population has given up and isn’t interested in their well-being anymore — and in turn, easy to worry about the economic well-being of healthcare providers. Why are doctor visits down and searches for health information seemingly declining? As with most complex problems, there’s a complex answer:
- The overabundance of health-related information. There is such an overabundance of health information that people are now so easily getting the information they need they do not perceive themselves as actively searching or researching. (And thus not answering the survey questions correctly.) In other words, you don’t think about how you’re going to water your garden in a rainstorm. This overabundance of information may lead people to believe they already know what they need to know. Finally, when you’re in an echo-chamber it’s hard to remember where a specific sound originated.
- Confusion over or lack of health insurance/benefits. Health insurance has become so complex that some individuals are emotionally skeptical that they won’t be covered and will have to pay high out-of-pocket charges. Even if they are covered, some may still fear their claim will be unjustifiably denied and they may become embroiled in a paperwork hassle. The increasing population of illegal immigrants and the unemployed may further explain the decline.
- Immediate/urgent care, supermarket and pharmacy quick-serve clinics. 2009 and 2010 saw easy-access and quick-serve healthcare brought out of the hospital and into the grocery store, greatly increasing competition. As well, with easier access, people would be less concerned about managing their healthcare when they can see someone so easily — and pick up a gallon of milk in the same place. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are now able to treat many conditions that only doctors were able to take care of in 2007.
- Alternative care isn’t as alternative anymore. Major corporations are beginning to cover chiropractic, massages, acupuncture and other once-alternative treatments in an effort to reduce or stave-off medical claims and costs.
- Online resources have matured to become trusted veterans of healthcare information. Once-feared online resources have given way to sites like WebMD which have become trusted proprietors of reliable and updated health information. It wasn’t long ago that you had to visit your library or bookstore to search for the latest information as new technology and knowledge progressed. Books become outdated and have to be replaced — but WebMD does not. It’s easier to say you don’t think about where to get health information when it’s available on your smartphone anytime.
- We’ve realized doctors are human. I have a friend who once told me, “I used to think doctors knew everything. And then I married one.” Her point was meant to be funny, but it’s true as well. As we all have gained more access to information, doctors have been taken off the pedestal we gave them as exclusive authorities of health information.
Where consumers seek health information
A Center for Studying Health System Change survey of 17,000 consumers found that the only medium experiencing a growth in health-related searches since 2007 was the Internet — but that the growth was unexpectedly small.
|Books, magazine, newspapers||23.7%||32.9%||18.2%|
|Friends and relatives||20.0%||30.8%||29.3%|
|TV or radio||12.0%||15.6%||10.0%|
Source: Surprising Decline in Consumers Seeking Health Information, Center for Studying Health System Change, November 2011
It comes down to this: I don’t think that anyone should fear the appetite for health information has declined — anymore than you should fear that people are reading less because book sales are down. We’ve just changed how we’re consuming — while at the same time it has become harder to tell truth from opinion. It’s up to us to rise above the cacophony of information to position healthcare providers as safe, reliable and up-to-date resources.