Opportunity Costs of Ambulatory Medical Care in the United States

Published in: The American Journal of Managed Care, v. 21, no. 8, Aug. 2015, p. 567-574

Posted on RAND.org on September 04, 2015

by Kristin Ray, Amalavoyal V. Chari, John Engberg, Marnie Bertolet, Ateev Mehrotra

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OBJECTIVES: The typical focus in discussions of healthcare spending is on direct medical costs such as physician reimbursement. The indirect costs of healthcare--patient opportunity costs associated with seeking care, for example--have not been adequately quantified. We aimed to quantify the opportunity costs for adults seeking medical care for themselves or others. Study Design: Secondary analysis of the 2003-2010 American Time Use Survey (ATUS). METHODS: We used the nationally representative 2003-2010 ATUS to estimate opportunity costs associated with ambulatory medical visits. We estimated opportunity costs for employed adults using self-reported hourly wages and for unemployed adults using a Heckman selection model. We used the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to compare opportunity costs with direct costs (ie, patient out-of-pocket, provider reimbursement) in 2010. RESULTS: Average total time per visit was 121 minutes (95% CI, 118-124), with 37 minutes (95% CI, 36-39) of travel time and 84 minutes (95% CI, 81-86) of clinic time. The average opportunity cost per visit was $43, which exceeds the average patient's out-of-pocket payment. Total opportunity costs per year for all physician visits in the United States were $52 billion in 2010. For every dollar spent in visit reimbursement, an additional 15 cents were spent in opportunity costs. CONCLUSIONS: In the United States, opportunity costs associated with ambulatory medical care are substantial. Accounting for patient opportunity costs is important for examining US healthcare system efficiency and for evaluating methods to improve the efficient delivery of patient-centered care.

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