Considering how intrinsic patient behavior is to healthcare, it is perhaps surprising that behavioral changes aren’t discussed more often in regard to care expenses. Or perhaps it’s not surprising at all, especially because patients appear unwilling to alter their behavior even if it would save them money.
A survey conducted by consulting group Accenture found that while an overwhelming majority — 72 percent of responding retail consumers — said that affordability was their chief consideration when deciding between healthcare options, less than 30 percent were willing to change care settings or doctors to reduce costs. It is, in Accenture’s apt words, a “paradox.”
But the situation is even more complicated than that: Health behaviors themselves need to change. This evolution is essential if we want to achieve a sustainably high level of healthcare in a country already under pressure.
The aging population, lagging supply of primary care physicians, and ever-increasing number of behavior-induced chronic conditions have put significant strain on the nation’s healthcare system. Innovative delivery methods — locum tenens being one example — can only do so much without a shift in patient conduct.
We all have to do more, and it starts with patients working to prevent and manage chronic conditions. Care providers can help, but the near-universal change necessary is beyond their reach. Each and every person must take on part of the responsibility for lowering costs by improving his or her own health behaviors.
Health Begets Wealth
According to a Health International analysis, 31 percent of U.S. healthcare costs were caused directly by behavior-influenced chronic conditions, and nearly 70 percent of total costs were heavily influenced by patient behavior.
These numbers prove what we already know: Unhealthy habits tend to be pricey. Cigarette smoking, for instance, costs a one-pack-a-day smoker about $45 per week (according to figures from the American Cancer Society), while abolishing a junk-food habit and instead cooking balanced meals at home saves thousands of dollars annually. But that’s small compared to what healthy habits can save a person over a lifetime.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study showing that the healthcare costs associated with physical inactivity topped $1.05 trillion per year from 2006 to 2011. On average, inactive adults spent $1,400 more annually than active adults on conditions related to their weight or similar health risks. This follows an earlier CDC report demonstrating how a relatively modest 10 percent weight loss can lower an overweight person’s lifetime medical costs between $2,200 and $5,300, which is nothing to scoff at.
Financial problems have a bad habit of dragging health down with them, as well. Overdue medical bills, for example, can trigger physical stress symptoms like migraines and anxiety. This, in turn, decreases that person’s trust in the healthcare system as a whole and makes them less likely to seek routine treatment for conditions such as flu symptoms or an ankle sprain. It’s a nefarious cycle, but it can be broken.
Support and Encourage Patients’ Behavioral Changes
Many healthcare facilities are aching for more primary care physicians as the Affordable Care Act expands the number of insured Americans. Filling temporary positions or offering competent care during peak periods can be done with locum staffing, which is a good first step. Health International also recommends that health systems introduce behavior-change programs. These programs can center on weight management, smoking cessation, and blood pressure or cholesterol management, among other widespread health issues.
With a focus on the patient and his or her behavior rather than the disease, such programs educate the population and encourage sustainable behaviors that lower long-term healthcare costs. This is not an immediate solution, but the time spent is worthwhile.
The bottom line? Americans must change their behaviors in order to curb health-related expenses. Other factors, such as skyrocketing medication costs, must also be addressed, but that doesn’t remove the average person’s responsibility to his or her own health. Making better lifestyle choices is essential, as is pursuing and receiving preventive and primary care.