In an inflationary environment, it’s understandable that many Americans would want to cut back on flexible—or nonessential—expenses, like organic groceries, dining out, or going to the movies. Many are doing this already, as well as curbing smaller expenses, to stay financially solvent.
But until now, few consumer-spending studies highlighted one of the biggest, yet most worrisome, cutbacks, resulting from inflation and a turbulent economy: healthcare. As a December 2022 survey of 1,000+ consumers revealed, seven in 10 consumers say inflation has affected their ability to pay their medical bills. What’s more, many individuals are skipping prescription medications, canceling doctor’s appointments, or taking other measures to avoid paying for healthcare.
For anyone who’s experienced the stress of a surprise medical bill, this is understandable.
Yet these decisions, sadly, have downstream financial — and clinical — consequences. Skipping preventive care, including routine medications, contributes to worsening chronic health issues. As a 2022 research paper published by the journal Preventive Medicine Reports noted, “Delays in medical care may increase morbidity and mortality risk among those with underlying, preventable, and treatable medical conditions.”
Cutting into Healthcare
Consumer data suggests that spending cutbacks are often driven by economic insecurities. There is fear of not having enough money to pay for primary, essential needs — like food and shelter — so individuals and families prioritize other things seen as essential to survival.
Because non-urgent doctor’s visits, such as annual physicals, are often viewed as “nice to have” rather than a “need to have,” they are on the chopping block when money gets tight — especially among younger generations. This may be part of the reason why one-third of millennials don’t have a primary care physician they see regularly.
That’s also a possible reason why, when inflation peaked in December 2022, adults had already planned out ways to scale back on healthcare they viewed as nonessential. Another factor, contributing to this “nice to have” mentality, is the pandemic. In 2020, both the CDC and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) encouraged Americans to postpone “nonessential” procedures, imbuing the idea in our collective consciousness that elective care can be put off, when needed.
As the December consumer survey noted:
- 25% of adults said they’d planned to postpone preventative doctor’s appointments like annual checkups in 2023.
- 18% said they would either delay filling a prescription or skip filling it altogether.
- 27% percent said they would avoid needed care or procedures this year.
A Helping Hand
Ultimately, the consumer survey data is a wakeup call to health leaders. The healthcare industry must do more to engage patients and get the message across that non-urgent healthcare is still as important as a safe living environment and nutritious foods. Doing more to encourage routine care, by sharing data and stories that underscore the benefits of prevention, is a big part of that.
But healthcare organizations should also be more sensitive to the needs of consumers who are struggling to manage their healthcare costs: Those with household incomes under $50K are more likely to delay medical payment due to affordability concerns (63%) than those making $50K to less than $100K (55%) or $100K or more (34%).
According to the consumer survey, 20% of consumers had to rely on savings to pay for healthcare expenses in 2022 alone, while 43% of survey respondents said a bill of $249 is the maximum they could manage with confidence—a sharp increase from a 2018 survey where 22% of respondents said the same.
A separate study indicated one-third of patients with outstanding medical bills have said they’ve deferred medical care.
While it’s not always possible to predict healthcare expenses, it is possible to offer patients a more flexible, compassionate way to manage them. For example, by offering flexible, zero-interest financing plans, including the option to pay bills in multiple ways, healthcare organizations can minimize the angst patients have about their ability to manage medical bills when they arise.
And by offering payment options that are tailored to personal preferences, healthcare organizations will appeal to consumers’ increasing needs for convenience and transparency. As the survey noted, 47% of consumers would switch providers to access affordable, long-term payment plan options were they offered.
By making healthcare easier to engage in and more affordable, consumers may feel less compelled to postpone elective procedures or undergo routine screenings that could save their lives. And they’ll be more likely to see healthcare as a vital primary need, regardless of global economic circumstances.