- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A tough economy has created a health hazard of its own. Strapped for cash, thousands of Americans are skipping medication doses, shunning doctor visits and forgoing diagnostic tests to save money.

It’s sickening. For real.

Almost half of the public - 47 percent - have postponed health care, did not fill a prescription, or skipped a medical test, immunization or mental health treatment because of the cost, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Health care is as daunting to consumers as job insecurity, mortgage payments and credit card debt, the nonpartisan group says.

Self-neglect, however, is no solution.

“Your health is your most important asset, not your money,” said Dr. Mark Fendrick, a professor of internal medicine and health management at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“Cutting back on health care without consulting your clinician is a very risky decision. It may not only have an impact on your health, but also have a worsening economic consequence that will lead to greater costs down the road when minor health concerns become major health issues,” Dr. Fendrick added.

His own research at the campus confirmed that purse-minded Americans are not taking care of themselves. One in nine people are cutting pills in half, taking them less frequently or “doing something” their doctor did not recommend.

On a larger scale, the American Hospital Association reported in November that among 736 hospitals nationwide, 30 percent saw a decline in elective procedures and nearly 40 percent had a drop in admissions overall because of the economic downturn.

The economy also has taken its toll in the vanity realm. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported a 62 percent overall decrease in cosmetic surgery last year.

The belt-tightening trends have not gone unnoticed in the private sector, prompting a goodwill war of sorts among commercial rivals.

Giant Food, for example, will offer free generic antibiotics to needy customers until March 21. Wal-Mart offers $4 prescription deals on 300 drugs, while Walgreens’ Prescription Savings Club gives member discounts on more than 5,000 brand-name and generic medications for $20 a year. Target and Wegmans offer similar deals.

Dr. Fendrick recommended some common-sense countermeasures, meanwhile, urging Americans to take pre-emptive strikes against illness with healthy diet and exercise. Screening tests like mammograms and immunizations should be up to date, and doctor-patient relationships should be productive, he said.

“You should really think about going to your primary-care physician who knows your medical history, coordinates your follow-up care and interacts with other doctors to make sure you´re getting the highest quality care possible at the lowest cost,” Dr. Fendrick said.

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