Industry in Focus: How Health Care and Social Assistance Fared in Third Quarter

Health care is an industry that many of us experience firsthand, whether receiving treatment for an illness or injury or simply getting an annual check-up. In the third quarter of 2015, health care and social assistance was the second-leading contributor to the 2 percent increase in the U.S. economy’s growth, providing 0.38 percentage point to real GDP.

Of particular interest: health care and social assistance accelerated from July through September, after decelerating for three consecutive quarters. (We describe an industry as accelerating when its growth in the current quarter is faster than its growth in the previous quarter. Conversely, we describe an industry as decelerating when its growth in the current quarter is slower than its growth in the previous quarter.)

We learn even more about what is happening inside the health care sector when we dig down into the underlying detail tables that we introduced last quarter.

Health care and social assistance consists of four underlying industries—ambulatory health care services, hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, and social assistance. A glance at the contributions of the underlying industries reveals that three of the four industries had actually been declining for two quarters.

However, growth in ambulatory health care services (which includes outpatient-services providers such as physicians, dentists, or optometrists) had hidden those declines. In the third quarter those three industries stopped declining and started growing again, which explains why health care and social assistance as a whole both grew and accelerated during the period.

Combining all of these observations from just a handful of tables allows one to paint a rich picture of what’s actually going on in the economy. What started as a relatively straightforward story—“health care grew in the third quarter”—becomes far more interesting when we begin to look at how that growth changed from previous quarters and how different parts of the industry fared.


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