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Younger Americans Use ERs as Their Primary Care Provider


They would change this behavior if they had faster access to in-network, lower-cost ambulatory care, a new study says.

Waiting area

The emergency room is the default choice for most Americans when they need medical care. Nearly 73% think it is easier to go to the ER than to get a doctor’s appointment, according to a new study about the overuse of ERs as primary care. The study was commissioned by Zocdoc, a digital healthcare marketplace, and conducted by global insights firm Kelton Global.

The attitude toward healthcare is driven by long wait times, given the average 24-day wait time to see a primary care physician in the U.S. Zocdoc’s research found that even though 84% of Americans have an established relationship with a primary care physician, 65% would still visit the ER if they couldn’t get in to see a doctor at the office quickly enough. Younger generations like millennials and Gen Z were even more likely (71% and 69%, respectively) to do so. 

The study also found that 33% of Americans had gone to the ER for non-urgent medical care, and 14% view the ER as their primary care doctor. Again, younger generations are most responsible for this growing trend. Nearly a quarter (24%) of millennials and 25% of Gen Z view the ER as their primary care doctor, which is in stark contrast to the 3% of Baby Boomers and 14% of Gen Xers who do the same.

“It is a failure of our healthcare system that Americans are turning to the ER because they lack solutions that help them secure faster access to care,” says Oliver Kharraz, MD, Zocdoc founder and CEO. “I founded Zocdoc to give power to the patient, leveraging technology to fix these structural inefficiencies that are bad for patients, providers, and our system as a whole. I’m proud that Zocdoc’s digital marketplace helps the typical patient get in-network care at a doctor’s office within 24 to 72 hours of booking.”

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With the rising cost of care in America, ER overuse is a dangerously expensive trend, according to Zocdoc. Receiving treatment at the ER can be up to 12 times more expensive than at a doctor’s office, contributing $32 billion of wasted spending on hospital care that could have been delivered in a lower-cost primary care setting. Americans are unwittingly footing much of this bill; more than two-thirds (69%) admit they are unsure of the costs for an ER visit. One in 10 have a false assumption of ER visits being less expensive or the same cost as a visit to the doctor's office.

Most Americans say they would be willing to change this behavior if they had faster access to in-network, lower-cost ambulatory care. The study revealed more than 86% of Americans would avoid a costly trip to the ER if they could see an in-network doctor within 24 hours.

A doctor’s time is the most valuable asset in healthcare, but it is underused, according to Zocdoc. Its data show that 10% to 20% of appointments are canceled or rescheduled at the last minute, leaving open availability that goes to waste. Healthcare executives can partner with companies like Zocdoc to improve patient access by surfacing this hidden supply of care in real-time. Just like hotels put extra capacity on online marketplaces as a supplement to traditional and online booking methods, Zocdoc complements health systems’ traditional and online booking by optimizing doctors’ calendars and making it available to patients who are actively searching for care, thus helping them secure last-minute appointments and avoid costly or unnecessary visits to the ER.

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