By 2016, the chiropractic industry is forecast to reach $14.8 billion in revenues. Those sales are divided among 142,000-143,000 chiropractors practicing in America today. That number is growing slowly even though the healthcare industry overall continues to grow far faster. The slower growth can be explained by a number of trends that have turned out to be a two-edged sword for the industry.
As I mentioned, the graying of America has been one trend that has filled the offices of many chiropractors around the nation. To be fair, my headline is misleading since the days of forcing someone's body into contorted positions and inducing a snap, crackle or pop are long gone. I, for one, have been going to chiropractors for years ever since injuring my back during a rocket attack in Vietnam. Sharing the waiting rooms with me and my disc issues, have been an increasing array of patients suffering a diverse list of common ailments. Neck pain from whiplash injuries, scoliosis, hip and knee problems and carpal tunnel syndrome are only some of the aches and pains that afflicts all of us oldsters (and many youngsters as well).
Unfortunately, most of these conditions cannot be resolved by surgery nor will they disappear forever once treated. I have herniated discs and for me this is a chronic condition. Although that's bad for me, it's good for the chiropractic business, or could be if it weren't for the limitations placed on chiropractic visits by most medical insurance companies.
Most plans limit chiropractic visits to 12 sessions a year. I can go through that many visits in one month if I throw out my back severely, which can happen once or twice a year. After that, I pay out of pocket. Most people can't afford that.
Although chiropractic care is gaining acceptance among more and more health care providers, it wasn't always that way. There was a time in the not too recent past when most medical professionals wrote chiropractors off as quacks or charlatans. The insurance companies, following that lead, made it extremely difficult for chiropractors to be reimbursed for their services.
The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordability Act in 2010 (Obama care) is expected to improve the position of chiropractors among health insurance providers. The act makes it illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against chiropractors and other providers', relative to their participation and coverage in health plans.
That may be good news, but like other medical practitioners, chiropractors are faced with shrinking reimbursements, while at the same time their regulation and insurance costs are skyrocketing. Another hindrance to the growth of the profession is its position as an alternative medicine and not a primary form of healthcare.
Yet the well-documented shrinking in the numbers of general practitioners in America has also bolstered the demand for chiropractors as an alternative primary care physician.
"People often say they would rather come to us first before going to their doctor," says Ron Piazza, owner of Berkshire Family Chiropractor in Pittsfield, MA, and a practicing chiropractor since 1985.
He has a point. In my experience, it usually requires one to two months before I can get a visit with my GP. If there is an emergency, my alternative is the hospital emergency room. But I can get in to see my chiropractor on the day I call, if it is an emergency or a day or two if it is not. I know that whatever ails me, he will have a lot more expertise in guiding me in the right direction.
"More and more, we are being considered the first line of defense by our patients," Piazza explains, "simply because there is nowhere else to go except the emergency room."
That makes a lot more sense when one realizes that the education required to become a chiropractor is not that much different than that required of a medical doctor. It is a four-year curriculum after college including residency whereas, in general, an MD requires six years, although two of those years are in residency.
From a personal point of view, I can expect to hurt myself at the gym or snow shoeing or cross country skiing or something else at least once or twice a year. The older I get, the less likely that my body can rebound on its own. I have a strong aversion to taking drugs and have found that a chiropractor performs for me the same function an auto mechanic provides for my car. In fact, I'm going for a tune-up tonight.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM),