I was all set to write an article on various health disorders and their cost. Then I got frustrated. You see, I started reading the original articles upon which the news/opinion articles I was using as reference were based. I found very rapidly that the figures being used in the articles were comparing different things…some of the totals included reporting by consumers of care; some of the totals included services under multiple diagnoses; adding the totals together summed to much more than we spend on all health care all told. I wonder how much of this misuse of data is occurring during our ongoing national discussion of health care reform. Apples and oranges are not the same and mixing data can result in sloppy conclusions.
On September 10, 2009, the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by Michael Pollan in which he discusses the costs of health care in the U.S. Big Food vs. Big Insurance discusses the report of the Centers for Disease Control that chronic illnesses account for 70% of all U.S. deaths. The medical bills of those with chronic diseases result in 75% of the health care spending in the U.S. Pollan argues that some of those chronic diseases…obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease…are at least partially the result of America’s terrible diet and overeating. Just helping U.S. residents eat better could result in a dramatic reduction in the costs of health care.
Pollan’s position received some confirmation from a podcast of Science Friday on August 28, 2009. How Cooking Made Us Human focused on the hypothesis that humans evolved effectively and developed larger brains because we started cooking our food. Cooking begins breaking food down before it is eaten, so it is easier to digest. Raw food is harder for the body to digest, so one does not get as much nutritional benefit from the food eaten. The result for human evolution was that we were able to take better advantage of the food we ate by cooking it.
The corollary of this hyothesis is that highly processed foods are a big contributor to obesity because they are too easy to digest. The more processed the food, the easier it is for our bodies to use the caloric content of the food. The result is that those whose diets consist largely of processed foods are also heavier. Raw foods are likely good for some who want to lose weight because the body has to work harder to digest them and does not get all the caloric benefit from the food. One can eat more, feel more full, but consume fewer calories.
Pollan’s point that a change in one aspect of our lives could have huge impact on health care spending got me to wondering…is there a mental health issue that is analogous to food/eating related disorders like obesity, diabetes and heart disease?
According to Open Minds On-Line News for September 14, 2009, mental disorders jumped from fifth place among health expenditures in 1996 to third place in 2006 increasing from $35.2 billion to $57.5 billion. The number of people who sought treatment for mental conditions went from 19.3 billion in 1996 to 36.2 billion people in 2006. While the dollars expended per person for behavioral health care are many fewer than for heart conditions ($1591 vs. $3964), perhaps there is a way for behavioral health providers to dramatically reduce costs of care by addressing a single problem.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, approximately 20% of the U.S. population experience some sort of mental health disorder in any given year. The best estimate is that 16.4% of the population experience some sort of anxiety disorder ranging from Simple Phobia to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A full 82% of those who experience a behavioral health disorder suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder.
Is it possible that education on stress reduction, prevention programs aimed at inoculating the U.S. population against anxiety and early treatment of anxiety disorders might decrease the cost of treating the disorders that do emerge? I have heard public health specialists argue that public education and prevention are the only way we will ever get our health care spending under control. I also have read that there is not yet compelling data to demonstrate that preventive care reduces costs at all. Perhaps we should just focus our attention on the behavioral aspects of the chronic physical diseases? Or maybe behavioral health providers can work in both arenas and assist in dramatically diminishing the costs of health care across the board.
What do you think about this issue? Where should psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, mental health counselors, community mental health centers and community behavioral organizations focus their energy? Where will our energies be most effectively spent?
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