Date: February 1st, 2003
It's no secret that chronic illnesses are costly to treat. But until now, few had any idea just how costly. A recent study examined three diseases that strike women especially hard - cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stress urinary incontinence. The results show that these diseases have the potential to cripple you financially as well as physically.
For example, it can cost $423,000 over a woman's lifetime to treat her cardiovascular disease and the conditions associated with it, such as high blood pressure and obesity. The lifetime cost of treating a woman's diabetes and associated health problems is $233,000; for stress urinary incontinence, a lifetime of treatment costs $58,000.
Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health, which announced the study, tells the Alliance, "This study clearly is a call for more research. Ideally, you don't want to spend the money on treatment, you want to prevent these conditions. Prevention research is very important."
The study also should help women realize how essential it is to prepare themselves financially for obtaining the necessary care. "It makes the case for the importance of having health care coverage, and having health insurance coverage specifically for women as they age," Greenberger says.
Howard Birnbaum of Analysis Group/Economics of Boston, which conducted the study, agrees, saying the study "demonstrates that medical costs for treating these women can be a great economic burden." The study's figures "provide a good baseline for women to take appropriate action regarding their health and financial security," he says.
The study represents the first-ever attempt to quantify lifetime medical costs, focusing exclusively on women. The study's findings included the costs of visits to doctors' offices, prescription drugs, hospitalization, and other medical service claims. It also included the cost of treating health problems typically associated with these three conditions.
"Cardiovascular disease is an area that women still don't think is important to them, when in fact, it's the No. 1 killer of women," Greenberger explains. Cardiovascular disease kills about 950,000 Americans every year, more than half of them women. Clogged arteries reduce the amount of blood and oxygen that reaches the heart or the brain, potentially causing heart attacks or strokes.
For women under age 64, treating cardiovascular disease costs about $6,700 per year. But for women aged 65 and over, that figure skyrockets to $30,700 per year. On average, medical costs for women over 65 are five times higher than those for younger women, according to government figures.
A second chronic condition, diabetes, affects about 8 million women in the U.S. "Diabetes is an ever-growing epidemic, especially for women and minorities," Greenberger says. In fact, it is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. The study found that, for women under age 65, diabetes treatments cost $5,500 per year. But once again, after age 65, that figure jumps dramatically, to $25,000 per year.
Overall, the lifetime cost of treating a woman's diabetes was $233,000, or just over half as much as cardiovascular disease costs. That figure includes both Type 1 (juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent) diabetes, and Type 2 (adult-onset or non-insulin dependent) diabetes. The study also included the cost of treating accompanying conditions such as high blood pressure and retinopathy, an eye disease that damages the retina by weakening the blood vessels that nourish the retina.
Finally, the study considered stress urinary incontinence, or SUI. This condition involves the leakage of urine caused by pressure on the bladder from activities such as laughing, coughing, sneezing, or certain types of exercise. It often goes unreported and undiagnosed, perhaps because women dismiss its severity or are embarrassed to mention it to their physician. Nevertheless, once diagnosed, SUI treatments can cost $15,000 annually for women over age 65, and $58,000 over a woman's lifetime.
"Nobody really wants to talk about this condition, so by including incontinence in this study, it highlights the need to do more research," Greenberger says. "Women may have these symptoms and think they're the only ones, or that nothing can be done about it. I think this study brings attention to an unmet need."
The study's researchers examined medical claims information from more than 200,000 women up to age 64 affiliated with a Fortune 100 company. For costs involving women over age 65, researchers used medical claims data and published U.S. government health statistics.
In general, the study found, women with these medical conditions use more of all types of medical services than healthier women. In particular, women with cardiovascular disease and diabetes are hospitalized far more frequently than healthier women.
Modern medicine can successfully treat these diseases, of course, but such advances come at a steep price. The bottom line, then, is that preventing these diseases in the first place makes good sense, both medically and financially.