Health care costs – have we picked all the low hanging fruit?

Published on
April 15, 2012

kate benson, reporting on health, health journalis, health care costs, chronic fatigue syndromeIn an era of "modern" medicine it sometimes seems as if many of the biggies have been knocked out compared to centuries past. The previously untreatable has become treatable and in many cases preventable. Tuberculosis? Check. AIDS? Check. Heart disease? Check. And with knowledge can come lower societal costs as well as health care cost containment.

But what about patients with rarer or more complex or even contested diseases where researchers have very different viewpoints and ideological stances leading to highly conflicting literature and research funds are distributed unevenly between the different points of view?

What about diseases where the usual prescription, whether behavioral or pharmaceutical, isn't effective even if it may be "cost effective?"  What about the indirect economic costs associated with rising disability linked to diseases we don't yet know how to treat effectively in the majority of cases?

In, "CFS: One Disease and Its Costs," PBS broadcaster Llewellyn King ledes with, "What would happen to health care if a million new patients with just one of many now incurable and largely untreated diseases flooded the system, relying on medicine that could cost $70,000?" Mr. King argues that this might not be a bad thing. (The current cost to the U.S. economy for CFS is conservatively estimated at $25 billion annually for direct medical costs and lost productivity.) 

Although Mr. King addresses one relatively rare disease where the "usual" isn't working very well, there are many others such as Gulf War Illness, atypical MS, Lyme Disease or the autism spectrum for example.

Are they at the top of most journalists' list to write about given the smaller populations they affect and how complicated and polarized the topic may be? Probably not, but these diseases, like cancer and AIDS before them, may be bellwethers of where health policy and medicine are failing and where both the costs and the human toll are rising.

Photo credit: inspector_81 via Flickr