Public Health

Complex, Chronic Illnesses Last a Lifetime and Consume 70% of the Healthcare Dollar

3 Mins read

Medical care is organized to treat acute conditions but the need today is to prevent, diagnose and treat chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, we are sorely lacking in a good chronic care management system. this will be the first in a series of six posts on this issue.

Medical care is organized to treat acute conditions but the need today is to prevent, diagnose and treat chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, we are sorely lacking in a good chronic care management system. this will be the first in a series of six posts on this issue.

Our medical care system has developed over decades and even centuries around diagnosing and treating acute illnesses such as pneumonia, a gall bladder attack or appendicitis. The internist gives an antibiotic for the pneumonia and the patient gets better. The surgeon cuts out the gall bladder or the appendix and the patient is cured. One patient; one doctor. But as the population ages, more and more individuals are developing what I will call complex, chronic diseases like heart failure, diabetes, chronic lung disease or cancer. These are diseases that once developed usually remain with the individual for life. These patients with chronic illnesses need a different approach to care. They need long term care, not episodic care. They need a multi-disciplinary, team-based approach where one physician serves as the orchestrater or quarterback and manages the myriad physician specialists and the other caregivers along with all of the tests and procedures to allow for a unified, coordinated care management approach. Not only are these diseases likely to last a lifetime, they are difficult to manage, have an adverse impact of both quality of life and mortality, and they are usually quite expensive to treat. Today 70% of our medical care expenditures go toward their treatment. As I will describe in detail later, it will take a new approach to organizing the care of these patients to both improve care and reduce the costs and this will require high quality health information technology.

However, it is valuable to first understand the implications of chronic disease. Most of us are just not aware that their incidence is rising – and rapidly. The Milken Institute ( ) quantified some of these issues in a research report a few years ago. They evaluated cancer, diabetes [presumably type 2], hypertension, stroke, heart disease, pulmonary conditions and mental disorders. Here are some of the key findings:

• “More than 109 million Americans report having at least one of the seven diseases, for a total of 162 million cases.

• The total impact of these diseases on the economy is $1.3 trillion annually.

• Of this amount, lost productivity totals $1.1 trillion per year, while another $277 billion is spent annually on treatment.

• On our current path, in 2023 we project a 42 percent increase in cases of the seven chronic diseases.

• $4.2 trillion in treatment costs and lost economic output.

• Under a more optimistic scenario, assuming modest improvements in preventing and treating disease, we find that in 2023 we could avoid 40 million cases of chronic disease.

• We could reduce the economic impact of disease by 27 percent, or $1.1 trillion annually; we could increase the nation’s GDP by $905 billion linked to productivity gains; we could also decrease treatment costs by $218 billion per year.

• Lower obesity rates alone could produce productivity gains of $254 billion and avoid $60 billion in treatment expenditures per year.”

To me the most telling and important finding is that “each has been linked to behavioral and/or environmental risk factors that broad-based prevention programs could address.” Restated, we as individuals need to take responsibility for our own health. Not every chronic illness is preventable, but most are. It is up to us to eat a nutritious diet in moderation, exercise our bodies, seek ways to reduce chronic stress and avoid tobacco. These four steps will make a huge difference in our health and our lives. Adding in dental hygiene, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, using seat belts and not drinking and driving will further prevent many illnesses. Many do not appreciate either that following a more appropriate lifestyle will actually slow the normal aging process that ultimately leads to many of these chronic illnesses.

Meanwhile, when chronic illness does strike, it is imperative to have a single care provider take responsibility for care coordination. Someone to not only recommend tests, procedures, images and specialist visits but who will actively ensure that each provider is properly attuned to the patient’s needs and that all of the information is collected and aggregated in a meaningful manner. When this is done the quality of care rises markedly, many fewer adverse events occur, the patient is more satisfied and the costs of care are dramatically reduced. In most cases, a primary care physician is the appropriate one to coordinate care although sometimes a specialist is better equipped for this role (e.g., a very complex cancer treatment plan). To be effective, the PCP or specialist needs to have not only the willingness and interest but also the time available to actually do the care coordination – time that is not available for most PCPs today. This coupled with limited digitized health information leads to today’s inadequate care of many individuals with chronic illnesses. In future posts I will describe today’s problems with lack of care coordination and how it can be corrected.

I wonder what others think abut why the problem of chronic illnesses and the need for care coordination is just not well recognized?

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