Incidence and Costs of Chronic Diseases on the Rise
Chronic diseases affect "far more" Americans than previously anticipated and threaten to overburden the nation's health care system unless measures to encourage preventive medicine are taken, according to two new studies. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University report that 125 million Americans have chronic diseases, exceeding a projection made in a 1996 "landmark study" that 105 million Americans would suffer from such illnesses this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. According to the Inquirer, chronic illnesses, which range from cancer to allergies, have cost Americans $510 billion this year in health care expenses. The Hopkins study, led by public health Prof. Gerard Anderson, was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and presented at the 15th National Conference on Chronic Disease Prevention and Control in Washington, D.C. It found that average yearly medical expenses for individuals with chronic illness total $6,032, more than five times what a healthy person pays. The second study, conducted by the CDC, found that more than 70% of the nation's health care costs go toward treating chronic diseases. It also found that in 1998, chronic illnesses killed 1.7 million Americans, accounting for three-fourths of all deaths.
Both studies report that the nation's health care system, as it stands now, is not prepared to adequately handle projected rising numbers of chronic disease patients as the baby boomers age. Anderson's study estimated that in 20 years, 157 million Americans will suffer from chronic illness and that health expenditures will reach more than one trillion real dollars. He noted that physicians are not reimbursed for discussing a patient's multiple illnesses with each other, and that Medicare and private insurers often don't cover long term health care costs. "The U.S. health care system is geared towards acute, one-time health problems. We've got to change that," he said, adding that Medicare was originally based on a plan that "underemphasized" long term illnesses. The CDC report commented, "Our country cannot reduce these enormous costs, much less its priority health problems, without addressing in a fundamentally more aggressive manner the prevention of chronic diseases" (Borenstein, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/30).