Patients in the USA made 1.1 billion visits to physicians’ offices and hospital outpatient and emergency departments in 2006, or an average of four visits per person per year, and seven out of every 10 such visits resulted in at least one medication being prescribed, according to new government figures.

A total of 2.6 billion medications were prescribed in the USA in 2006, say the latest health care statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Analgesics were the most widely-prescribed drugs during the year, accounting for 13.6% of the annual total, and they were most often used during primary care and emergency room visits, it adds.

The number of visits to physicians’ offices and hospital outpatient and emergency departments increased 26% during 1996-2206, which is faster than the 11% growth of the US population reported for the decade, says the CDC, and it suggests that this increase can be linked to the aging of the population.

Moreover, in 2006 an average of 227 visits were made to US emergency departments every minute, with the year’s total climbing to a record high of 119.2 million, up from 115 million in 2005. This shows that “emergency physicians are providing a health care safety net for everyone,” according to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

“This report is very troubling because it shows that care is being delayed for everyone, including people in pain and with heart attacks,” said ACEP president Dr Linda Lawrence.

The findings also raise concerns about the large number of aging baby boomers, because the elderly tend to have more chronic health problems, and the second highest percent of emergency visits for serious medical conditions was found to be among people ages 75 and older. This could mean catastrophic overcrowding within a few years, Dr Lawrence warned.

The top five reasons for emergency visits in 2006 were stomach and abdominal pain, cramps and spasms; chest pain and related symptoms; fever and pain in the head; and back symptoms. The most common reasons for visits among children (ages 15 and younger) were fever, cough, vomiting, earache and injury to head, neck or face, says the CDC.