Mental Illness: The Cost to Society

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
November 1, 2004

Did you ever wonder which diseases cost our society the most money? Me neither.

Yet I was amazed at the article "15 Illnesses Drive Up Costs," by Ceci Connolly, in the Washington Post, August 25, 2004. This newspaper article was based on statistics from health economist Kenneth Thorpe, who tracked the costs of 370 medical conditions over a 13-year time period:

  • There was a $200 billion increase in health care spending between 1987 and 2000.
  • The top five most expensive illnesses made up 31% of this $200 billion increase.
  • About half (56%) of this $200 billion increase was attributable to only 15 illnesses.

Thorpe's study is important because it is the first to look at which diseases have the highest costs associated with them -- providing a priority list on how to effect change in insurance and medical care for these diseases on the top of the cost list. As the researchers put it "understanding U.S. health care spendingcould allow us to more effectively target interventions designed to rein in the growth of health care spending." The researchers point out that the increased costs could be caused by 1) more people being diagnosed and treated for a certain disease, or 2) increased health care costs because of a new medical technology, for instance.

In the case of mental illness, more people are being diagnosed and treated; for diseases such as heart disease, the diagnosis and treatment costs have increased, not the overall number of people with the disease. Furthermore, many diseases are becoming more commonplace because of our aging population.

Top 5 Most Expensive Medical
Conditions in the US

  1. Heart disease
  2. Pulmonary (lung) disorders
  3. Mental disorders
  4. Cancer
  5. Trauma
Thorpe and his team identified the 15 most expensive medical conditions. Chronic conditions that you hear about a lot in the media top the list: heart disease is the most costliest condition, followed by pulmonary (lung) disorders, mental disorders, cancer and trauma. For a variety of reasons, the number of people being diagnosed with mental illness is increasing, and our health care system currently is set up to deal with crises in health, not prevention or early and consistent treatment. Once a health situation is a crisis, costs skyrocket.

Thorpe asserts that spending money for prevention or early treatment has long-term economic benefits (as well as the obvious health benefits) that outweigh the short-term costs. He states that research has shown that "higher spending on treating heart attacks, low-birthweight babies, cataracts and depression has benefits that outweigh the increased costs."

Even though people in the US spend more per capita on health care than any other population in an industrialized nation, we can not boast about having a healthier population. In fact, the numbers are dismal. The cost of health insurance increased 12.5% per year for the last three years; this is, in part, why 44 million people do not have health insurance in this country.

References and Further Information:

  1. Kenneth E. Thorpe, Curtis S. Florence, and Peter Joski, Which Medical Conditions Account for the Rise in Health Care Spending?, Health Affairs, 2004.
  2. "15 Illnesses Drive Up Costs," by Ceci Connolly, in the Washington Post, August 25, 2004.

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