(NewsNation) — As Americans continue to grapple with high inflation, health experts say more patients are putting off medical care, something they fear could lead to worse health outcomes over time.
Today’s financial concerns are just the latest setback highlighting a problem that began three years ago when millions were forced to cancel doctor appointments and preventative screenings due to the coronavirus.
“The patients that are coming in have delayed care and so they’re actually sicker than what we were experiencing prior to the pandemic,” said Dr. Laura Zimmermann, the division chief of general internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Now, Zimmermann says more people are postponing care due to cost specifically. It’s a trend that’s been observed in recent surveys.
The percentage of Americans putting off health care due to cost hit a record high (38%) in a recent Gallup poll. Additionally, 28% of consumers said they feel less prepared for unexpected medical costs than they did a year ago, according to a separate study in November from Deloitte Insights.
Asif Dhar studies health trends as Deloitte’s vice chair and U.S. life sciences and health care industry leader. He’s worried the rising cost of nutritious food and skyrocketing rent prices could exacerbate medical problems on top of delayed care.
“As people have more challenges with their basic needs that drive health, then health care becomes more needed,” Dhar said.
In other words, Americans may be getting priced out of care precisely when they need it most.
That reality may end up costing patients and health systems more in the long run, particularly if serious diseases such as cancer go undiagnosed.
“If you let it go … the more expensive it gets, the harder it is to treat and the worse the survival rates,” Dhar said.
During the coronavirus, millions of appointments for cancer screenings were missed or canceled, according to the American Cancer Society’s latest annual report.
Although it’s still too soon to know how many excess deaths that interruption caused — or whether inflation could have a similar impact — some models have predicted a significant increase in late-stage diagnoses and deaths due to pandemic-driven delays.
Historically, the cost of medical care has outpaced prices in the rest of the economy, but over the last year, medical costs increased much more slowly than overall inflation, according to the latest Consumer Price Index.
But inflation can make going to the doctor more expensive in other ways. When money is tight, people may be less willing to take time off of work or pay for the gas it takes to drive to an appointment.
The problem may be especially pronounced for rural Americans, who tend to travel farther, in some cases multiple hours, for basic medical care.
“A lot of times people are waiting until the last possible moment to seek medical care because the perceived benefit does not outweigh the economic cost of seeking that care,” Zimmermann said.
Other health advocates NewsNation spoke to believe unclear pricing has made the problem worse.
“We (humans) naturally fear the unknown. … We don’t know what the cost might be associated with (medical care) and out of that fear it’s completely natural that we would avoid the situation,” said Nicole Broadhurst, a patient advocate and the founder of Tennessee Health Advocates.
Things like groceries are clearly marked and allow consumers to make informed decisions on the spot. However, medical costs can be the exact opposite, and many are choosing the devil they know over the devil they don’t.
In a survey last year, 44% of participants said they avoided health care services because they didn’t know the cost, up from 25% the year prior.
Two years ago, a new hospital transparency rule took effect that was supposed to provide consumers with clear, accessible pricing information. But recent studies suggest hospitals have been slow to comply.
An analysis published in January found only 19% of the hospitals studied fully satisfied the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rule, which requires hospitals to post estimated costs for standard health care services. Other studies have found broader compliance (closer to 70%) pertaining to transparency requirements on hospital websites.
Despite the slow rollout, data suggests CMS has been reluctant to levy fines. To date, just two hospitals have been fined for violating the transparency rules.
There are a few ways patients can mitigate health care sticker shock.
Broadhurst recommends being proactive and asking additional questions before agreeing to costly diagnostic tests: “Will the results of this test affect my plan of care?” and “What are the consequences if I don’t do this?”
In some cases, she says it’s cheaper to pay for health services and prescriptions in cash even if you have insurance. That option can spare consumers the headache of confusing billing practices on the backend.
Dr. Zimmermann also recommended asking for generic drugs when it comes to medication, which are often more affordable and just as effective as newer, name-brand alternatives.