Disease-related malnutrition drives up healthcare costs

Although on the face of it the United States appears to be a well-fed country, malnutrition may actually be a significant cost-driver for its healthcare system.

That's the conclusion of a study recently published in the online journal PLOS ONE. Researchers examined malnutrition costs associated with eight different medical conditions, including stroke, breast cancer, dementia, heart failure and colorectal cancer. Such conditions may make it more difficult for the patient to eat regularly or consume a consistent level of nutrients. As a result, those suffering from disease-related malnutrition are more likely to experience an inflammatory response and more medical complications.

The study concluded that the issue is widespread, with one-third of patients suffering malnutrition prior to being admitted to a hospital for care, with another third descending into malnutrition during their hospital stay.

As a result, the malnutrition connected with the medical conditions may increase costs of treatment by as much as $15.5 billion a year, according to the study. Per capita costs vary widely by state, ranging from $36 in Utah to $65 in the District of Columbia.

“Our healthcare system already spends significant resources treating chronic diseases, and this new study shows how malnutrition--a preventable and treatable condition--is adding to that cost at the state level,” said Scott Goates, a health economist and the study's lead author, in a statement. “When people are well-nourished, we remove a barrier to successfully managing chronic conditions while lowering the financial burden on individuals and the healthcare system at large.”

Some hospitals are quite cognizant of the issue and have made attempts to address it. Boston Medical Center screens all emergency department and clinic patients for malnutrition, and clinicians actually write prescriptions for food that can be filled out an onsite pantry. Other hospitals have taken a more holistic position, improving the quality and nutritional content of the food they provide patients.