The cost of chronic disease in America

The numbers are staggering. By 2030, chronic diseases could cost American businesses $2 trillion in medical costs, plus an extra $794 billion annually in lost employee productivity. If current trends continue, the projected annual medical and productivity costs will average $8,600 per person.

Prevalence of chronic conditions is a significant piece of the health care expense puzzle. More than 190 million Americans – or about 3 in 5 people – has one or more chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, or heart disease. And if the trend continues, it is expected that 4 out of 5 individuals will experience one or more chronic conditions within the next 15 years.

According to the American Diabetes Association, the costliest chronic illness weighing on society is diabetes, accounting for 1 in every 4 healthcare dollars and affecting more than 30 million people. Early treatment is important to positive health outcomes and stemming the tide of runaway medical costs. Unfortunately, 1 in 4 people with diabetes don’t even know they have it and a whopping 84 million more have prediabetes, which can turn into diabetes within five years. With these statistics, it’s easy to see the impending epidemic our nation is facing.

Diabetes and other chronic health conditions can lead to less time on the job and more time in the doctor’s office. The cost and loss of productivity obviously increase when the condition isn’t well managed.

Many are reliant upon medical exams to catch chronic conditions. But according to the Journal of Preventive Medicine, only 1 in 5 employees get their annual medical exam and just 10% are getting the proper preventive medical screenings necessary to detect chronic conditions like diabetes. One possible cause is that employees might be hesitant to visit their primary physician except in cases of acute illness or injury given the rise in high-deductible health plans. The share of covered workers enrolled in high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) at large employers reached 47% in 2019.

If medical exams aren’t identifying chronic conditions early, how can the US move the needle on the early identification necessary to control costs and ensure patients better manage their health?  

“While the outlook may seem dire, there are things we can do to help those with diabetes and prediabetes,” notes Kate Renwick-Espinosa, president of VSP® Vision Care. “A comprehensive annual eye exam can help detect signs of some life-threatening chronic diseases, like diabetes, early on, but only if people make eye exams a priority.”

According to Renwick-Espinosa, “Early identification of chronic diseases is instrumental in controlling healthcare costs and ensuring patients can better manage their health.”

Many don’t realize that eye exams are a simple way to detect signs of diabetes and many other chronic conditions early. The eyes are the only place in the body that provide an unobstructed view of blood vessels, and because eye exams are non-invasive and relatively brief, employees may be more likely to visit an optometrist than their primary care doctor. 

To halt the rise in healthcare costs, savvy employers are investing in corporate well-being and disease management programs specifically targeting diabetes care to incentivize their teams to adopt healthier habits such as increased exercise and improved nutrition.

In fact, 68% of employers with more than 200 employees are currently offering disease management programs. VSP is partnering with Livongo, a digital health platform that empowers people with chronic conditions to live better and healthier lives. VSP and Livongo are working together to drive member engagement to help employees manage their chronic conditions.

Contributing to the success of these programs are connected clinical devices that employees can use at home to better monitor and control their conditions. These include connected glucose meters for diabetes, weight scales for prediabetes, and blood pressure cuffs for hypertension.

According to Renwick-Espinosa, “Through integration, healthcare partners can identify members with chronic conditions and deliver personalized care that helps improve their overall health. Since eye exams are a valuable tool in detecting signs of some chronic conditions, like diabetes and prediabetes, vision benefits should be an integral part of helping employees stay healthy.”

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