June 29, 2007 / 8:44 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. hospital, doctor visits balloon, survey finds

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hospital and doctor visits in the United States have surged by 20 percent in the past five years and the most commonly prescribed medications are antidepressants, according to statistics published on Friday.

The survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found most people who visited emergency rooms had private health insurance, although the uninsured were twice as likely to use emergency services as people with insurance.

The report estimates that 1.2 billion visits were made to hospitals, emergency rooms and physicians’ offices in 2005.

“It was only a few years ago that we released that the total number of visits had reached 1 billion. And now we are up to 1.2 billion,” Catharine Burt of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said in a telephone interview.

“That’s a 20 percent increase in the just the last five years -- a huge number,” said Burt. “I can tell you that the number of hospitals and physicians has not increased 20 percent.”

The reason is clear -- Americans are getting older. “When you reach 50 things start going wrong, just little by little, and you keep going back to the doctors,” Burt said.

The baby boom generation -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- are now prime users of the medical system.

Burt’s team surveyed 352 hospitals and about 1,200 physicians throughout 2005 for the study.

OLDER AND DEPRESSED

Of 2.4 billion drugs mentioned in patients’ medical records in 2005, 118 million were antidepressants, Burt found. High blood pressure drugs followed, with 113 million and arthritis or headache drugs were mentioned in 110 million.

“These are visits. These aren’t people,” she said. People taking antidepressants may need more frequent doctor visits.

The report also shed light on the controversial issue of emergency room visits. Many health care experts are worried that the 43 million people who lack health insurance in the United States must rely on emergency rooms for care -- not the best way to prevent serious conditions.

The survey suggests this is true. “People with no insurance are twice as likely to use the emergency department as the privately insured,” Burt said.

Nearly 28 percent of all doctors visits by uninsured people are to emergency rooms, compared to 6.6 percent of visits made by people with insurance.

The report found that 46 million of the visits made to ERs in 2005 were by people with insurance, compared to 19 million by people without insurance.

“With 315,000 people visiting emergency departments every day, the alarm bells are sounding and policymakers should heed the alert and respond,” said Dr. Brian Keaton, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which is pressing for a national commission on access to emergency medical services.

The CDC report is available on the Internet here

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