Consumers’ DIY in Health Care Could Save the U.S. $5 Billion

Health care costs in the U.S. exceeded $2.3 trillion in 2008. That year, there were nearly 1 billion visits to see physicians in offices, millions of which physicians believe were avoidable or unnecessary were patients to engage in more self-management of their health and use of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. How much money would be conserved in health spending if those 10% of visits were avoided and managed at home? Over $5 billion worth, according to calculations from the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA).

CHPA’s report and survey, Your Health At Hand: Perceptions of over-the-counter medicine in the U.S., details a survey conducted among U.S. adults and physicians exploring their views on DIY health care for patients.

4 in 5 adults in the U.S. use OTCs, 2 in 3 seek other self-treatment options like resting or diet, and 2 in 3 also use dietary supplements, according to CHPA’s survey of consumers. Furthermore, 40% of U.S. look up their symptoms online to educate themselves about possible conditions. 28% consult family or friend for advice; 24% consult a pharmacist.

90% of consumers say medical visits for minor ailments are often unnecessary as they know from experience how to self-diagnose and treat them. An equal percent of people also say medical visits for minor ailments are often unnecessary because of the availability of OTC medicines.

And nearly all primary care physicians (90%) concur with consumers that OTC medicines are useful for overall health care. Most importantly, these doctors say, OTC meds help empower patients to treat minor health issues themselves, that OTCs can help reduce physician’s work burden, and are effective for many health issues. 9 in 10 physicians also believe that responsible use of OTC medicines helps to lower costs to the U.S. health system.

CHPA has published a self-care OTC guide for consumers, accessible at YourHealthAt The handbook covers the full range of OTC medicines on the market, including analgesics; cough, cold and allergy; dermatology and other topical products; oral health care; smoking cessation; and, weight loss.

The CHPA survey was conducted via telephone among 1,000 U.S. adults age 18 and over, and online with 500 practicing physicians in the U.S., in November 2010.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  Consumers’ DIY in health will become increasingly important, not just for cost-savings — though that’s certainly a major benefit of growing self-care among U.S. health citizens. The primary care physician shortage will grow even more acute in the coming years, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aging of the population, and growing shortages in underserved urban areas with population growth. Two-thirds of physicians in the CHPA survey believe patient wait time will get longer.

Those 10% of physicians who foresee patient wait times getting shorter point to innovations such as electronic health records, online scheduling, medical home models, and “technology” broadly speaking as inputs that will improve access and productivity.

There’s another kind of innovation that improves productivity and lowers costs, highlighted this week in The Economist (my must-read weekly newsmagazine for the past 25 years). “Frugal health care in America” talks about the Geisinger Health System’s novel approach to delivering primary care, which coordinates teams of doctors and nurses to keep people healthy – and costing less resources to the region’s health citizens and payors.

Self-care will go a long way to keeping people well at-home. Once people get sick (with more than “minor ailments” as measured in the CHPA survey), it will be new institutional approaches to extending primary care that will stem further health costs so that patients don’t end up in the expensive emergency room or with specialists paid on a fee-for-service basis.


About Jane Sarasohn-Kahn

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn is a health economist, advisor and trend-weaver to organizations at the intersection of health, technology and people. Jane founded THINK-Health after spending a decade as a health care consultant in firms in the U.S. and Europe. Jane’s clients are all stakeholders in health, including technology, bio/life sciences, providers, plans, financial services, consumer products, public sector and not-for-profit organizations. Jane founded the Health Populi blog in 2007, covering health policy, technology, and consumers.

2 Responses to Consumers’ DIY in Health Care Could Save the U.S. $5 Billion

  1. Dial Doctors June 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Telemedicine can help patients stay at home. Patients can treat minor ailments from home without cluttering the hospital and delaying care for people who are in emergent or critical care. For example,
    EDs are almost always trying to play catch up because there’s too many people crowding the system. Granted patients are triaged upon arrival but some fall through the cracks.

    A team of doctors working on the phones for a few hours a day can significantly reduce the number of hospital visits and overall health care costs.


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