Of all the tough questions a medical professional receives these days, the most complex to answer is this: Why does medical care cost so much, and why is it getting so much more expensive so quickly?
First, I would say there are no easy answers to hard questions, and if you search for comforting and predictable simplicity inside the human drama, you’re doomed to disappointment. Geniuses find answers easily; the rest of us must use long division and a sharp pencil.
My musings on this topic are more focused at the moment because this is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and caring for patients who suffer from various forms of dementia is a significant part of my company, Assured Healthcare in Gurnee.
The national annual cost of caring for patients with dementia (home care, long term professional care, hospice care) is about $200 billion right now. The size of that bill is why the debate over national health insurance and Medicare helped drive national politics this year and likely will for decades. If this election forced you to pay attention to arithmetic, it only gets harder from now on.
As much as $200 billion seems an impossibly high price for one slice of health care – mostly senior citizens - within 40 years the price will be $1.1 trillion. That’s one million millions plus a few thousand millions left over.
Virtually everyone reading this blog now will be alive in 40 years and be receiving this care in some degree. And 959,000 will be suffering from some form of dementia if science has not cracked the code to it. We’re a nation that’s getting older at a brisk pace and age costs.
So that’s one way to look at why medical care is expensive now and likely to get more so. To care for dementia patients over the course of years, we average spending about $11 an hour. Is that too high? How much is the dignity of your parents and grandparents worth? Eventually someone will have to answer that question about your health.
But that’s only one piece of why things cost what they do.
The truth is that much of the cost of caring for senior dementia patients is hidden and does not show on any financial statement. It’s absorbed into the lives of relatives and family caregivers who do the task out of love.
What price do you put on caring for your frail mother or sitting at your dad’s bedside for the last three years of his life?
We do not have a full ledger of that ”cost” but we are starting to understand more clearly that it is not free. The cost to a family caregiver can be financial in lost income, but also physical and mental. Related caregivers suffer higher rates of stress, depression and illness. They wear down. Their other relationships often suffer, as do their careers.
They are more likely to have visited a hospital emergency room for their own health in the last six months. Because they are most usually women and more often (55 percent) the lead breadwinner in their own family, they can suffer job stress and financial loss. Too much to do and too few hours.
The tangible cost to home caregivers is $7.9 billion in increased healthcare costs for them. It’s the cliché tip of a much larger iceberg. But as caring for a loved one often does, they bear the irony of suffering stress, but they also are satisfied for the chance to share as much life with their parents as they can. They choose the burden, and often do so valiantly.
Protecting and supporting them eventually will become as meaningful as care for the declining loved one. Why? In practical terms, they are giving 17 billion hours of unpaid care a year, a contribution to the nation worth another $202 billion.
There is no version of private health care that can ultimately pay for that bill entirely, and the bill will double and then triple. And ultimately, we are not a nation that will stand for our most vulnerable to suffer and die in silence merely because the bill to care for them is steep.
If you are dedicated to donating money for medical research, consider how much solving Alzheimer’s and dementia could mean. Your dollar might be the one that turns the tide.
In the shorter term, I have a proposal. If you know someone who cares for a relative suffering from one of the various forms of dementia, don’t wait to be asked. Stride up to them, throw your arms around their shoulders and give them a hug. Tell them they are wonderful.
They need it.
They also deserve it, for they are noble. They are giving their lives to help, and no one should ignore that gift.
Who am I, and why would a person listen to me? Both fair questions. I’m Christine Hammerlund and I’ve been a nurse for years. I have delivered babies, saved lives, and cared for hundreds of patients through their medical triumphs and tragedies. Now I run Assured Healthcare at http://www.assuredhealthcare.com. We're a multi-million dollar medical staff provider in Illinois. I live in Antioch, Ill. Got health questions for me, whether large or small? I’ll answer. Visit us at http://www.facebook.com/AssuredHealthcareStaffing and Chrishammerlund@yahoo.com