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Health Costs, Research, Women's Health

Menopausal symptoms tied to lost work productivity, higher health-care costs

Menopausal symptoms tied to lost work productivity, higher health-care costs

Previous studies have shown that hormone therapy, a common treatment for menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, can lead to a higher risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots in some women. For that reason, many women no longer use the treatment for their symptoms.

Now, a study from Yale School of Medicine researchers has highlighted the economic consequences of this aspect of menopause, with hot flashes being tied to lost productivity at work and to increased health-care costs. Medical News Today reports on the findings (subscription required), which appear in the journal Menopause:

[The research team] used data on health insurance claims to compare over 500,000 women, half with and half without hot flashes. The team calculated the costs of health care and work loss over a 12-month period. Participants were all insured by Fortune 500 companies.

The team found that women who experienced hot flashes had 1.5 million more health care visits than women without hot flashes. Costs for the additional health care was $339,559,458. The cost of work lost was another $27,668,410 during the 12-month study period.”

“Not treating these common symptoms causes many women to drop out of the labor force at a time when their careers are on the upswing,” Philip Sarrel, MD, said in the piece, later adding that there are options for those suffering: “The symptoms can be easily treated in a variety of ways, such as with low-dose hormone patches, non-hormonal medications, and simple environmental adjustments such as cooling the workplace.”

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

Previously: Studying the link between post-menopausual hormones, cognition and moodAnxiety, poor sleep, and time can affect accuracy of women’s self-reports of menopause symptoms  and Most physicians not prescribing low-dose hormone therapy 

Cancer, Health Costs, In the News, Stanford News, Videos

TV spot features a more humane approach to late-stage cancer care

Updated 8-4-14: The video is no longer posted on the Al Jazzera website, but the online story is still available.

***

7-30-14: Is it possible to cut the costs of late-stage cancer care by 30 percent and provide a much better experience for patients?

That’s the question that recently brought an Al Jazzera America TV news crew out to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, to interview patients enrolled in a new Stanford-designed pilot study on cancer care. You can watch their 9-minute video on this topic here.

The guiding principle behind this cancer-care program is this: Make sure that patients are fully informed about survival odds and treatment side effects well before they’re on the brink of death, when emotions overwhelm the decision-making skills of patients, their families and clinicians.

“Eighty percent of all cancer patients express a desire to die at home, yet only 10 percent do,” says Manali Patel, MD, the VA hospital oncologist running this study. “These end-of-life conversations, which typically take two hours in the beginning and require many follow-on conversations, are too hard, time-consuming and draining for a busy oncologist to do well.”

For these life-and-death discussions, patients are assigned personal care coaches who help them understand the big picture — treatment side effects, survival odds and pain-relief options. They also have access to a 24-hour symptom-management hotline and an option for in-home chemotherapy.

Architects of this new cancer care model, working with Arnold Milstein, MD, at Stanford’s Clinical Excellence Research Center, estimate that this program will lead to fewer unwanted treatments and expensive emergency room visits, saving the overall heath-care system money, while at the same time improving patient quality of life.

Previously: Communicating with terminally ill patients: A physician’s perspective, Identifying disparities in palliative care among cancer and non-cancer patients, Uncommon hero: A young oncologist fights for more humane cancer care, The money crunch: Stanford Medicine magazine’s new special report and New Stanford center to address inefficient health care

Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Health Policy, Nutrition, Obesity, Stanford News

Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes

Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes

soda

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, carbonated beverages such as Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper and 7UP were sold as nerve tonics and health drinks. But, we now know that sugary sodas contribute to obesity, type-2 diabetes and cavities. Still, most Americans drink more soda than they like to admit.

Even though sugar-laden soft drinks have no nutritional value, they are still eligible for food stamps. Nutrition researchers and some politicians have advocated for a ban on buying sugar-sweetened drinks with food stamps but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, is under tremendous pressure from beverage company lobbyists to keep the existing regulations.

Sugary drinks are especially concerning because too many liquid calories put consumers at a higher risk of developing type-2 diabetes. Some nutrition experts are concerned that taxpayers are subsidizing an unhealthy diet, which will result in higher medical costs for Medicare and Medicaid down the road, when food stamp recipients experience the health problems associated with obesity and diabetes.

In a new study (subscription required) published in this month’s Health Affairs, Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and his colleagues created a computer model to simulate the effects of a soda ban on the health of food stamp recipients. They found that obesity would drop by 1.12 percent for adults, and by 0.41 percent for children, affecting about 281,000 adults and 141,000 children. Type-2 diabetes would also drop by 2.3 percent.

The researchers also calculated the effects of reimbursing participants 30-cents for each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables. The subsidy did not affect obesity or diabetes rates, but doubled the number of people who ate the recommended number of fruits and vegetables each day. A county in Massachusetts tried the same reimbursement system as part of the USDA’s Healthy Incentives pilot study, and saw a similar increase in the fruit and vegetable purchases of food stamp recipients.

“It’s really hard to get people to eat their broccoli,” said Basu in a press release. “You have to make it really cheap, and even then, sometimes people don’t know what to do with it.” But, with one in seven Americans receiving food stamps, he points out that these small changes can have wide-ranging effects.

“It’s very rare that we can reach that many people with one policy change and just one program.”

Patricia Waldron is a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Food stamps and sodas: Stanford pediatrician weighs inCan food stamps help lighten America’s obesity epidemic? and Stanford’s Sanjay Basu named a Top Global Thinker of 2013
Photo by Andy Schultz

Global Health, Health Costs, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

The earlier the better: Study makes vaccination recommendations for next flu pandemic

The earlier the better: Study makes vaccination recommendations for next flu pandemic

no fluIn 2009, the H1N1 flu virus circled the globe, sickening and killing thousands of people. Though the World Health Organization announced that the virus was a pandemic in June 2009, in the U.S., widespread vaccination campaigns didn’t occur until about nine months later. By that time, many people had already spent a week coughing on the couch, recovered, and developed immunity to the virus.

After observing these delays, Stanford researchers Nayer Khazeni, MD, and Douglas K. Owens, MD, wanted to know when is the best time to vaccinate to save lives, reduce infections and lower health-care costs. They used the U.S. response to the 2009 pandemic to create a computer model that simulated how a more deadly flu pandemic would move through a metropolis like New York City.

In their paper, which appears in Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers found that if a city could vaccinate its residents six months after the start of an outbreak, instead of nine, it could stop more than 230,000 infections and prevent the deaths of 6,000 people. The city could also save $51 million in hospital bills for infected individuals.

It takes about six months for scientists, public health officials and vaccine companies to create and distribute a new flu vaccine. Most vaccines are still grown in chicken eggs! But newer technologies that use cell cultures or genetic engineering to create vaccines may soon shorten the wait to just four months. Shaving off those two months would almost double the savings, in terms of both lives and health-care dollars, they found.

Even if the city can’t vaccinate until nine months into an outbreak, residents can slow the virus’ spread by staying home when sick, wearing a face mask, hand washing, and in severe cases, even closing down schools and public transportation. These low-tech methods can buy the residents time while they are waiting for a vaccine to become available.

Patricia Waldron is a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Could self-administered flu vaccine patches replace injections? Text message reminders shown effective in boosting flu shot rates among pregnant women and Working to create a universal flu vaccine
Photo by itsv 

Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Health Policy, Research, Stanford News

Keeping kidney failure patients out of the hospital

Keeping kidney failure patients out of the hospital

Keeping kidney patients healthy enough to stay out of the hospital certainly sounds like a good thing – both for the patients and the economy. Now there’s scientific evidence to show how this can be done.

Reducing hospital readmissions was a focus of the the Affordable Care Act, and Kevin Erickson, MD, an instructor in nephrology at Stanford, decided to study a group of patients who are often hospitalized. He and his colleagues examined whether an additional doctor’s visit in the month after hospital discharge would help keep kidney-failure patients on dialysis from being readmitted. He and his colleagues analyzed data collected between 2004-2009 by the United States Renal Data System, a national registry of nearly all end-stage renal disease patients in the country.

It’s nice to find something that may generate both cost savings and better health outcomes

Results showed that there was a significant reduction in hospital readmissions with that extra doctor’s visit in the month after hospital discharge. And while the percentage doesn’t sound all that significant – 3.5 percent –  in real numbers that translates to 31,370 fewer hospitalizations and $240 million per year saved, according to the study published this month in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

“It’s nice to find something that may generate both cost savings and better health outcomes,” Erickson told me. “Patients with end-stage renal disease suffer from poor quality of life. Some of that I suspect is related to multiple trips in and out of the hospital.”

Patients with kidney failure are at a particularly high risk of hospital readmission: In 2009 patients getting dialysis were admitted to the hospital nearly two times per year, 36 percent of whom were rehospitalized within 30 days, according to the study.

Previously: Study shows higher Medicaid coverage leads to lower kidney failure rates; Study shows higher rates of untreated kidney failure among older adults; Study shows daily dialysis may boost patients’ heart function, physical health.

Emergency Medicine, Health Costs, Health Disparities, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

ER visits for U.S. newborns show racial disparities

ER visits for U.S. newborns show racial disparities

Haiti Earthquake“Baby’s first trip to the ER” is probably one photo that no one ever wants to put in a baby book. But a surprising number of newborns – 320,000 each year – visit an emergency department within their first month of life. For reasons that are likely a complex mix of socioeconomic and biological factors, black newborns across the U.S. are more than twice as likely to make the trip.

Henry Lee, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford, broke down the stats of how often newborns end up in the emergency department and looked at race, age and insurance status. In collaboration with researchers at the University of California-San Francisco, Lee analyzed data from nationwide emergency room visits collected by the National Center for Health Statistics. The study appears in the May issue of the journal Pediatric Emergency Care.

The researchers found that 14.4 percent of black babies visited the emergency department, compared to 7.7 percent of Hispanic babies and 6.7 percent of white newborns. Some trips to the ER are unavoidable, such as when a baby has an infection or isn’t gaining weight. But it’s likely that some of these visits could have been prevented.

All babies must get a checkup within several days of being born. But if the delivering doctor failed to counsel the new parents about checkups – or if the doctor missed a common problem, such as jaundice – then the new family might end up in the ER instead of at a clinic. In addition to representing a lack of continuity of care for the newborns, these visits drive up health-care costs.

Additional studies may tease apart the factors that cause black newborns to end up in the emergency room more often than other groups, and to find ways to reduce spending on health care while providing better services.

“Improving the quality of care for this higher-risk group could also help to improve disparities and outcomes as well,” Lee said.

Patricia Waldron is a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Decreasing demand on emergency department resources with “ankle hotline” and Speed it up: Two programs help reduce length of stay for emergency-room visitors
Photo by Olav Saltbones / Norwegian Red Cross

Health Costs, Health Policy, Podcasts, Stanford News

Considering the costs of treatment while making clinical decisions

Considering the costs of treatment while making clinical decisions

The headline of the front page New York Times article caught my attention: “Cost of Treatment May Influence Doctors.” The piece read in part:

Saying they can no longer ignore the rising prices of health care, some of the most influential medical groups in the nation are recommending that doctors weigh the costs, not just the effectiveness of treatments, as they make decisions about patient care.

The shift, little noticed outside the medical establishment but already controversial inside it, suggests that doctors are starting to redefine their roles, from being concerned exclusively about individual patients to exerting influence on how health care dollars are spent.

In reading further, I discovered that one of Stanford’s cardiologists, Paul Heidenreich, MD, was a c0-chair of the policy review that led to new guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. I thought it would be interesting to delve deeper in a 1:2:1 podcast with Heidenreich about why, as he told the Times, “we couldn’t go on just ignoring costs.” Did escalating health-care costs that are consuming GDP spur the action? Are these guidelines a threat to individual decision-making between a physician and patient? And, what role do patients have in these decisions? Shouldn’t they be included in potential key life-and-death verdicts?

I was also especially intrigued by a quote from the societies’ paper outlining the changes: “Protecting patients from financial ruin is fundamental to the precept of ‘do not harm.’ ” Hmm… a new take on the Hippocratic Oath that I’ve never considered.

Why the new guidelines?  Just consider for a moment the iconic rock lyrics of Bob Dylan. They say it all:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Previously: Personal essays highlight importance of cost-conscious medical decisions and Educating physicians on the cost of care

Dermatology, Health Costs, In the News, Research, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford dermatologist tackles free drug samples on NewsHour

Stanford dermatologist tackles free drug samples on NewsHour

Last week, my colleague reported on a new Stanford study showing that free drug samples lead to more expensive prescriptions. Over the weekend, dermatologist Al Lane, MD, senior author of the study, appeared on PBS NewsHour to discuss the implications of his findings. (He’s also quoted in a New York Times blog post on the research.) After mentioning that pharmaceutical companies spend more than $6 billion a year on sampling, he told NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan “that [this] cost eventually has to be paid by someone.” And he closes on a powerful note:

One of the focuses of our study was for the dermatologists to realize that although they think they’re helping the patients, they’re really being manipulated to write for more expensive medications with no proven benefit of those medications over the generic drugs.

Previously: Drug samples lead to more expensive prescriptions, Stanford study finds

Dermatology, Ethics, Health Costs, Research, Stanford News

Drug samples lead to more expensive prescriptions, Stanford study finds

Drug samples lead to more expensive prescriptions, Stanford study finds

drugs on money - big

It’s been years (fortunately) since I’ve needed a prescription for anything more than a simple antibiotic. But when I did, I remember I was always thankful on those occasions when my doctor offered a free sample of a medication to try before (or sometimes instead of) pulling out the prescription pad. I appreciated the chance to see if a medication would work for me, and I was happy for any opportunity to save myself (or, at times, my insurance company) a few dollars. The fact that the samples were invariably for drugs that were still on patent (known as brand name drugs or branded generics) to a particular company certainly escaped me.

Now, a study by Stanford dermatologist Al Lane, MD, highlights the dark side of such free samples, which are provided to doctors by the pharmaceutical companies who make the drugs. The research, along with an accompanying editorial, is published today in JAMA Dermatology. As Lane comments in my release on the work:

Physicians may not be aware of the cost difference between brand-name and generic drugs and patients may not realize that, by accepting samples, they could be unintentionally channeled into subsequently receiving a prescription for a more expensive medication.

Specifically, Lane and medical student Michael Hurley found that dermatologists with access to free drug samples wrote prescriptions for medications with a retail price of about twice that of prescriptions written by dermatologists without access to samples. All of the patients had the same first-time diagnosis of adult acne. The difference is nothing to sniff at – $465 for docs who accepted samples and about $200 for docs who did not. What’s more, the overall prescribing patterns of the two groups of physicians showed almost no overlap. Physicians without access to samples prescribed mainly generic drugs (83 percent of the time), whereas those with access to samples prescribed generics much less frequently (21 percent of the time). Only one drug of the top ten most commonly prescribed by physicians without access to samples even made it into the top ten list of physicians who did accept samples.

The distribution of free drug samples in this country is big business. It’s been estimated that pharmaceutical companies give away samples of medications with a retail value of about $16 billion every year. But many physicians feel the availability of samples doesn’t sway their prescribing choices, and instead feel the samples allow them more flexibility to treat their patients. Lane himself thought so, until Stanford Medicine prohibited physicians to accept samples or other industry gifts in 2006. As he explains in the release:

At one time, we at Stanford really felt that samples were a very important part of our practice. It seemed a good way to help poorer patients, who maybe couldn’t afford to pay for medications out-of-pocket, and we had the perception that this was very beneficial for patients. But the important question physicians should be asking themselves now is whether any potential, and as yet unproven, benefit in patient compliance, satisfaction or adherence is really worth the increased cost to patients and the health-care system.

Clearly Lane has had a change of heart, in part based on the data in the study. Now he’s hoping to get the word out to other physicians. He and Hurley conclude in the paper, “The negative consequences of free drug samples affect clinical practice on a national level, and policies should be in place to properly mitigate their inappropriate influence on prescribing patterns.”

Previously: Consumers’ behavior responsible for $163 billion in wasteful pharmacy-related costs and Stanford’s medical school expands its policy to limit industry access
Photo by StockMonkeys.com

Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Patient Care, Stanford News

Stanford Coordinated Care: A team approach to taming chronic illness

Stanford Coordinated Care: A team approach to taming chronic illness

team handsNearly two years ago, Stanford began an experiment in medical care, a novel way to bring down the extravagant costs of health care while improving people’s health and their experience with the system. If you ask Shelly Reynolds, RN, one of the first patients to benefit, she will tell you it’s been a wild success.

“They hold me accountable for my own health, which is great,” she told me for my recently published Inside Stanford Medicine story. “Physically and emotionally, I’m healthier than I was before.”

And the experiment is costing less, according to initial figures.

The experiment is called Stanford Coordinated Care, a clinic aimed at helping those who consume the lion’s share of health care dollars. These are patients with chronic illnesses, like diabetes or asthma, who often wind up in emergency rooms or in the hospital because their conditions aren’t being well-managed.

The clinic helps them gain control over their health through a personalized approach by a team of caregivers who are available day or night and who give them the tools and support to manage their conditions at home. It focuses on the patients’ goals and what is important to them.

“It’s easy to make a diagnosis of diabetes, but it can be hard for a person to manage day by day,” Ann Lindsay, MD, one of the clinic co-directors, commented. “We help patients in developing a plan. We support it, and we empower them along the way.”

The clinic is the brainchild of Arnold Milstein, MD, a professor of medicine at Stanford and nationally known health care innovator. He developed a model, called the “ambulatory caring ICU,” which was tested successfully in several major pilot sites around the country. He wanted to bring the model to Stanford and recruited the husband-and-wife team of Alan Glaseroff, MD, now a professor of medicine at Stanford, and Lindsay, who had led one of the sites in California’s Humboldt County.

The clinic now has more than 200 patients, all employees and their families at Stanford University and Stanford Hospital & Clinics. Glaseroff calculates that among the first 27 patients treated in the first six months of the clinic’s opening in May 2012, it saved about $420,000, a 39 percent decline in costs from the previous six months, when patients were receiving care elsewhere. He said the numbers are still small and that research is under way to determine if the model is effective in reducing costs, improving outcomes and promoting patient satisfaction.

Initial findings show patient satisfaction at 100 percent. Reynolds is a good example: Working with Lindsay, she has developed a plan to effectively manage her asthma and her back pain and keep her out of the emergency room. She no longer feels like “a number” in the health care system and says having support from Lindsay has made all the difference: “For the first time in a long time,” she told me, “I felt that someone was looking out for me, advocating for me. It was such a relief.”

Previously: Focusing on the whole person to treat chronic disease – and cut costs, At-home program aimed at helping patients with chronic illness and Innovative Stanford clinic to support chronic care patients
Photo (modified from original) by bibendum84

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