Costs of Arthritis Grow With Population

More than 46 million American adults had arthritis or other rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout in 2003, a new study reports.

And the numbers could be rising.

The study, published in the current issue of Arthritis and Rheumatism, found the new figures to be an increase over the nearly 37 million people who suffered from these conditions in 1997.

The overall medical costs and the lost wages associated with these conditions also continued to rise, according to the study.

Since 1997, when a similar study was done by the group, the options for treating arthritic conditions have grown vastly.

With the introduction -- and failure -- of new drugs such as Vioxx and Celebrex, increasing use of biologic agents, and more hip and knee replacements, Louise Murphy, epidemiologist at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and co-author of the study, said they expected individuals to be spending more on treatments.

But their expectations were wrong. While total costs rose, "We were surprised to see that there wasn't a big increase in cost per person," she said.

Instead, they saw a shift in costs away from inpatient care to outpatient care, and mostly towards prescription medications.

Aging Population the Culprit

The study saw a rise in the total amount spent by Americans on medical care for arthritic conditions: $80.8 billion in 2003 compared to $64.8 billion in 1997.

The authors attribute this increase to the growing population of the elderly. This is a big problem that experts say needs to be addressed now.

Dr. Lee Simon, associate clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that this study shows that the burden of disease continues to increase.

"Essentially the costs attributable to arthritis -- that economic drain -- are equivalent to a chronic low-grade recession," Murphy said.

And not only did people spend more to treat their arthritic conditions, but these same people also lost wages because of physical disability caused by their disease that did not allow them to work.

The study reported raw earnings losses due to arthritic conditions to total $108 billion in 2003 compared to $99 billion in 1997.

Unfortunately, not much can be done to slow the growth of the aging population.

However, Simon said, "We can do better at earlier diagnosis, early interventions with both drug therapy, when appropriate, as well as cognitive, behavioral and exercise therapies to keep patients more functional.

"Further access to appropriate diagnosis and therapy will be important as the society ages and concomitant chronic disease becomes more prevalent."

Combined Effort to Control Costs

"The CDC has made a strong commitment to support evidence-based programs to help control [arthritis]," said Edward Yelin, professor of medicine and health policy at the University of California in San Francisco and lead author of the study.

Murphy added that patients themselves can also take a role in treating their conditions.

"One of the things that the CDC is mindful of among people with arthritis is participation in self-management programs such as the Arthritis Foundation Self-Help Program," he said.

The Arthritis Foundation Self-Help Program is an educational program designed to help patients with arthritis learn the skills required to become an active member in treating their own condition.

According to Murphy this program has been shown to be effective in reducing pain and, thus, medical costs due to fewer doctor visits.

"Another message is the importance of weight management," added Murphy.

"We know that among the family of arthritis conditions, the majority of arthritis is osteoarthritis. There is some indication that weight management can reduce the risk of getting [symptomatic osteoarthritis] down the road."

In response to the overall increases in health costs and number of people with chronic health conditions, the CDC along with the Health and Human Services Department and other organizations also support Healthy Life 2010 -- a public health initiative with the goal of improving the health of Americans by 2010.

Included in this initiative are objectives for reducing medical costs and lost wages due to arthritis and other rheumatic conditions.

With estimates expecting the number of people suffering from arthritic conditions to reach 67 million by 2030, Yelin emphasized the need for such programs and other methods to reduce costs.

"We better find a way to control the costs because population dynamics are not something you can affect quickly."