Americans Seeing Doctors More Often

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Gallup's recent poll on Health and Healthcare* shows that Americans are apparently visiting the doctor more frequently. The percentage of Americans who reported seeing a doctor in the past 12 months, as well as the average number of visits to a doctor, show an increase when compared with results from the last time Gallup asked the question in 2001. The increase in the average number of visits is evident in most demographic subgroups, though it is higher among those with medical conditions as well as among those with lower household incomes. The data suggest that those who have healthier lifestyles have shown little to no increase in doctor visits.

According to the Nov. 7-10 poll, 90% of Americans visited a medical doctor at least once in the past 12 months, compared with 86% in 2001 (and 83% in 1991). The number of Americans making more than 10 doctor visits also increased from 10% in 1991 and 2001 to 14% this year.

On average, the current data show Americans went to see a medical doctor an average of 6.3 times in the past 12 months. That's nearly two visits more than the average from 2001. A closer look at the data by subgroup shows that just about every group shows an increase in doctor visits when compared with the 2001 data.

Visits are up among both genders -- men saw a doctor an average of five times in 2004, women seven times. The data from 2001 and 2004 show that women tend to go to the doctor more often than men do, perhaps out of greater concern for their health (as the data suggest is the case) but also possibly because of annual recommended visits to OB/GYN doctors or additional visits related to pregnancy.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Gender

 

 

2001

2004

Change

 

Male

3.6

5.4

+1.8

Female

5.8

7.2

+1.4

All age groups show an increase, with older Americans showing greater increases.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Age

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

18 to 29

5.3

5.9

+0.6

30 to 49

4.9

6.3

+1.4

50 to 64

4.4

6.7

+2.3

65 and older

4.5

6.4

+1.9

Looking at age and gender together, the average number of doctor visits is higher among all subgroups, but to the largest degree among older women. Younger women show the least change, but still rate as the most likely group to visit doctors.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Gender and Age

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

Male, 18-49

3.2

5.0

+1.8

Male, 50+

4.2

6.0

+1.8

Female, 18-49

6.7

7.3

+0.6

Female, 50+

4.6

7.1

+2.5

Whites and nonwhites show similar increases when compared with results from 2001. Nonwhites average one more doctor visit per year than whites.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Race

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

White

4.6

6.1

+1.5

Nonwhite

5.6

7.1

+1.5

Those with lower levels of formal education typically visit the doctor more often; that isn't totally a function of lower education levels among older Americans, since there is not a great deal of variation in doctor visits by age. There has essentially been no change among those with college degrees, one of the few subgroups to where the number of doctor visits held steady.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Educational Level

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

High school or less

5.2

7.4

+2.2

Some college

4.7

6.7

+2.0

College graduate

4.2

4.4

+0.2

Doctor visits are up sharply among those with annual household incomes of less than $30,000, from 5.4 to 9.1. Increases are more modest among higher income groups.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Household Income

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

Less than $30,000

5.4

9.1

+3.7

$30,000-$49,999

5.5

6.7

+1.2

$50,000 or more

3.7

4.7

+1.0

Medicare or Medicaid recipients, average about two more doctor visits in the current data than in the 2001 data. Those who have private insurance show a more modest increase, while those without any insurance show essentially no change.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Type of Health Insurance

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

Private insurance

4.4

5.8

+1.4

Medicare/Medicaid

6.0

8.1

+2.1

No insurance

4.3

4.6

+0.3

Doctor visits are up most among those who can be considered overweight or obese based on their body mass index, which Gallup calculates for each respondent based on his or her reported height and weight. This suggests some connection of overall health to doctor visits, although even people whose body mass index is normal show an increase in the number of doctor visits.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Body Mass Index Score

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

Underweight

N/A

N/A

N/A

Normal

4.0

5.1

+1.1

Overweight

4.0

6.8

+2.8

Obese

5.4

7.7

+2.3

 

Note: Sample sizes for those who are underweight are too small to produce reliable estimates

Smokers continue to be more likely to visit the doctor than nonsmokers, but doctor visits are up about equally among both groups.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Smoking Habits

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

Smokers

5.7

7.5

+1.8

Nonsmokers

4.4

6.0

+1.6

In 2001, there were essentially no differences in number of doctor visits by extent of physical exercise (Gallup creates a scale of exercise level based on the average number of days a respondent says he or she participates in vigorous or moderate physical activity). That has changed, with those with low and sedentary activity levels showing a sharp increase in number of doctor visits (more than two additional), while those who are more active showing essentially no change.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Exercise Level

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

High

4.5

4.9

+0.4

Medium

4.8

5.4

+0.6

Low

4.9

7.6

+2.7

Sedentary

4.9

7.4

+2.5

Americans with an ongoing medical issue -- either a physical disability or a long-term medical condition, show an increase in average number of doctor visits. There has been a large increase in the number of doctor visits among those who say they have a physical disability (4.1 on average), while there has been just a small increase among those with no physical disability (1.0 on average).

Perhaps those who are sick are more likely now than in the recent past to see the doctor. In 2001, those who reported being sick in the past 30 days said they had seen the doctor an average of 6.8 times in the past 12 months. In 2004, those who said they were recently sick report an average of 11.7 doctor visits.

In general, those with some sort of medical condition or issue are much more likely to go to the doctor, at least 11 times a year, on average.

Average Number of Doctor Visits in Past 12 Months, by Medical Conditions

 

 

2001

2004

Change

       

Physical disability

9.3

13.4

+4.1

No physical disability

3.5

4.5

+1.0

Long-term condition

8.9

11.0

+2.1

No long-term condition

3.2

4.2

+1.0

Sick past 30 days

6.8

11.7

+4.9

Not sick past 30 days

4.1

4.7

+0.6

Bottom Line

It is unclear why the average number of doctor visits is increasing. In fact, Americans' ratings of their own physical health are no worse than in 2001. While the population is clearly getting older, it is unclear if three years is enough to realize such a dramatic increase in doctor visits. Alternatively, the increased number of visits to doctors may be a positive sign of an increased focus on early detection and diagnosis, or a more careful management of existing medical conditions. Or visits to the doctor's office might have been driven up during the bad flu outbreak that persisted through February this year. Or it could be a consequence of a move to more managed care systems that may require additional doctor visits to receive referrals. But Gallup's data clearly suggest an increase in trips to see doctors in the United States in recent years.

*These results are based on interviews with 1,016 randomly selected national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 7-10, 2004. For results based on this total sample, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. Margins of error for subgroups will be slightly higher.


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