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New Study: U.S. Health System “Bleak and Broken” for Those Chronically Ill

New America Media, News Report, Paul Kleyman Posted: Mar 20, 2009

Almost four in 10 Americans with chronic illness say they lack enough money to do things necessary to improve their health--and this proportion jumps to six out of 10 Latinos, African Americans and people with low annual incomes, according to a survey released this week at the Aging in America Conference in Las Vegas.

Calling the U.S. health care system “bleak and broken” for millions of Americans with chronic health conditions, researchers at the National Council on Aging (NCOA), in Washington, D.C., reported that an “alarmingly” large proportion of chronic disease sufferers are “delaying health care due to cost, living in pain and feeling abandoned by their health care providers.”

“We felt there was not adequate attention being given to the voice of people suffering from these conditions,” said Nancy Whitelaw, who heads NCOA’s Center for Healthy Aging. “Chronic disease accounts for more than 75 percent of the nation’s $2 trillion medical care costs,” she added. Without change, Whitelaw noted, the aging of the huge boomer generation will overwhelm the U.S. healthcare system with ill-treated chronic conditions.

The study calls on the federal government to invest in primary health care practices and community programs that can coordinate care for those who need it most. It also urged health care professionals to take greater responsibility for connecting their patients to effective community self-care programs, as well as improving the quality and coordination of care for people with chronic diseases.

Whitelaw said the survey, which included more than 1,100 people 44 or older, showed that 85% of people with long-term ailments want to learn more about how to care for themselves.

However, she said in an online video, “Messages like ‘be more active,’ by themselves, are not very helpful, because they’re trying to be more active while being in pain, they’re trying to be more active while being tired, while raising grandchildren, while having arthritis and diabetes and heart disease.”

“A large proportion also wants help learning how to eat right and exercise in ways that work with their limitations,” the study says. Yet, almost six in 10 respondents said their health care providers have not asked whether they have help managing their problems. Also, 45 percent say their doctors rarely, if ever, refer them to classes, counselors, dieticians or health educators.

Studies have shown that research-based health programs “can result in significant improvements in energy, health status, social activities, less fatigue and lower use of the hospital and/or emergency room,” says the NCOA report.

Latinos, who were interviewed in English or Spanish, “confront more challenges than white Americans, and are especially interested in support from people and places in their community,” says the survey report.

A majority of Latinos face multiple barriers to effective management of their chronic illness, ranging from cost to lack of knowledge needed to build confidence that they can take more charge of improving their conditions. African Americans also were above the survey average in facing barriers to their care.

NCOA sponsored the study, titled “Re-Forming Health Care: Americans Speak Out about Chronic Conditions and the Pursuit of Healthier Lives,” with support from The Atlantic Philanthropies and the California HealthCare Foundation. A detailed summary is posted online at www.ncoa.org/healthierlives.

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