Bad Economy, Bad Health?

Many Americans Say the Weak Economy Adds to the Financial and Emotional Strain of Managing Chronic Illnesses

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 19, 2010 -- Many Americans with chronic illnesses feel the economic downturn has had a negative impact on their health, raising their stress levels and costing them money they can ill afford not to sock away for the future.

That's according to findings of a major poll by the Harvard School of Public Health and Knowledge Networks, an online research firm, that shows people with heart disease, diabetes, and cancer feel the weak economy is having an adverse affect on their well-being.

In addition, the poll shows that many people don't believe the new health-care reform act will help them much, if at all.

Economic Downturn Causing Health as Well as Financial Difficulties

Some Americans say they face financial difficulties in paying for medical bills and worry the sluggish economy is not only hurting their health now, but will continue to do so in the future.

The researchers found that:

  • 35% of people with heart disease say the economic downturn has hurt their health; 21% of cancer patients hold similar beliefs, as do 39% of people with diabetes.
  • 27% of people with cancer, 47% of people with heart disease, and 48% of people with diabetes say their health will be negatively affected in the future by the current poor economy.

"Many people with heart disease, diabetes, or cancer say the problems created by the economic downturn are spilling over into their physical health, not only today but also in the future," Gillian K. SteelFisher, PhD, a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, says in a news release.

Concerning financial issues, the researchers found that:

  • 35% of heart disease patients, 34% of people with diabetes, and 22% of people with cancer believe the economic downturn has forced them to use up most or all of their savings to pay medical bills, co-payments, and related health-care fees.
  • 25% of people with heart disease, 26% of diabetes patients, and 19% of people with cancer say they have gone into credit card debt to meet medical expenses.

Some Bankruptcies Blamed on Medical Treatment

The report says a smaller percentage of patients has had to declare bankruptcy because of the weak economy's impact on their ability to pay for health care, including 4% with heart disease, 9% with diabetes, and 3% with cancer.

"While bankruptcy due to costs of health care has gotten national attention, it is also of serious concern that substantial proportions of people with these chronic conditions are depleting their savings and going into debt to pay for needed health care," says Jordan Peugh, vice president of Health Care and Policy Research at Knowledge Networks.

  • Among other key findings of the study:
  • 43% of Americans with heart disease, 42% with diabetes, and 21% with cancer say economic hard times have made it more stressful for them to manage their illness.
  • 19% of people with diabetes say they have skipped or delayed appointments with medical professionals to save money, and 15% say they have delayed or put off recommended tests.
  • 18% of diabetes patients say they haven't been able to follow recommended diets, and 23% say they test their blood sugar levels less often than they should.

Health Reform Doesn't Raise Much Hope for Sick People

When it came to President Obama's health reform bill, less than 15% of heart disease patients or people with diabetes or cancer feel they'll be better off under the new law. About a third of patients in each category told pollsters they don't feel the new law will make much difference, or don't know what its impact will be.

"Although experts suggest the health-care reform law has provisions that could help people with illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, many people who have such diseases do not believe it," says Robert J. Blendon, ScD, director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program.

Poll participants included 508 people with heart disease, 506 with diabetes, and 506 with cancer.

Researchers also found that 88% of participants had some kind of health insurance, 30% were between the ages of 55 and 64, 78% were white, 49% were males, and 37% lived in the South.


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SOURCES: News release, Knowledge Networks.Impact of Economic Downturn on Health of People With Heart Disease, Diabetes or Cancer (Harvard Opinion Research Program, Harvard School of Public Health, Knowledge Networks, Oct. 27-31, 2010).

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