Chronic conditions a major driver of healthcare spending

Patients and insurers spend more on diabetes, heart disease, and back and neck pain than on any other chronic disease, a new study finds.

Indeed, these three conditions cost consumers more than $275 billion in 2013, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

While it's well known that the United States spends more on healthcare than any other country—$3.2 trillion in 2015 alone—the latest research takes a look at what Americans spend their money on by breaking down costs for more than 150 conditions, as well as spending by age and gender, from 1996 to 2013.

Researchers found that the 20 most costly conditions accounted for more than half of personal spending in 2013, a total of about $1.2 trillion. The costliest condition was diabetes (more than $100 billion) with 57% of those costs spent on drugs and 23.5% on ambulatory care.

Other highlights from the study:

  • Spending on low back and neck pain and on diabetes increased the most over the 17-year period. Costs for back and neck pain jumped by an estimated $57 billion and by $64 billion for diabetes. 
  • Spending on emergency care and retail pharmaceuticals increased at the fastest rates (6.4% and 5.6%), higher than the annual rates for spending on inpatient care and nursing facility care. 
  • Medical spending increases as patients age. Nearly 40% of healthcare spending in 2013 was for patients aged 65 and older. Infants are the exceptions to the rule, the researchers found.

In an accompanying editorial, Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that many of these trends are well-known, especially that the elderly often consume more healthcare resources. The findings, Emanuel writes, points to areas that the industry can improve, particularly when treating patients with chronic diseases.

“This re-emphasizes the need for a healthcare system focused not on acute problems but rather on the management of chronic, lifelong conditions,” he writes.