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Claims data shows that elective procedures are more common at the end of the year

procedure seasonality

It’s October, the holidays are just around the corner, and it’s finally time to… get that bunion surgery you’ve been putting off?

It might seem ridiculous, but we found that more than 30% of bunion surgeries occurred in the last three months of the year (we would only expect to see 24.9% during this time if bunion surgeries were evenly distributed throughout the year). Other elective medical procedures seem to follow a similar pattern.

Here’s what we found by analyzing 5 billion claims representing more than 200 million patients from 2014 to 2016:

  • Many elective and non-urgent procedures appear to be seasonal. Acupuncture, bunion surgery, breast lifts, and chiropractic adjustment are all more common in the last three months of the year, with more than 28% of those patient interactions occurring in October, November, and December. (If these procedures were equally common during all months, we would only expect to see 24.9% in those three months).

  • In some cases, this seems to be due to the seasons themselves. This could explain why allergy tests are more common in the spring, and why vaccines and hearing tests spike right before school starts. It could also explain why cognitive behavioral therapy—a treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—is concentrated at the end of fall and beginning of winter, when SAD is known to set in.

  • In other cases, a spike in frequency at the end of the year could reflect financial incentives. Patients could be more willing to spend money left over in their HSAs or FSAs, or perhaps they’ve hit their deductible for the year and want to fit in any extra medical care before their deductible resets.

We also found that more than 13% of vasectomies happen in December, with a slight uptick in March (9%). We should only see about 8.3% in one month if vasectomies were distributed evenly throughout the year—so what gives? Perhaps the holidays are a good time to sit around and recover, and previous studies have found that more men get vasectomies during March Madness.

Below is a heatmap of 50 different procedures and their frequency throughout the year. Orange squares represent more patients, while blue squares represent fewer.

procedure seasonality

Want to read more interesting healthcare insights from Amino? Check out all of our latest data stories here.

Methodology

We analyzed 5 billion claims filed between 2014 and 2016. We looked at the procedure codes in each claim, grouped them together into relevant categories, and assigned them common names (e.g. “treatment of kidney stones” instead of “extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy”). For each category, we counted the number of patients in each month and divided that number by the total number of patients observed in 2014-2016. Finally, we curated a list of 50 interesting procedure categories to be featured in the chart.

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