The financial wallop of surviving a heart attack

Surviving a heart attack comes with a considerable price tag to patients as well as to their employers.

In a new study presented this week at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2012, researchers tallied up the direct and indirect costs of treating a heart attack and other forms of acute coronary syndrome.

Here’s what they found:

- The  average person had $8,170 in health care costs, including out-of-pocket expenses. Although most of the money was spent on hospitalization and medical care, a sizable chunk Р$625 Рwas for pharmacy costs.

- Workers lost 60.2 days of work in the short term and 397 days of work in the longer term.

- The cost to employers of losing the worker’s productivity was $7,943 per claim for short-term disability and $52,473 per claim for long-term disability.

- Hospitalization accounted for three out of every four dollars spent annually on acute coronary syndrome.

What makes this study somewhat unusual is that it focuses almost exclusively on working-age adults under age 65, a population that accounts for just under half (47 percent, to be exact) of all coronary patients yet often is statistically lumped in with older people.

The researchers conducted their analysis using data from Integrated Benefits Institutes’ Health and Productivity Benchmarking Databases and IMS Lifelink. They looked at medical, pharmacy and short-term and long-term disability claims to calculate both the direct and indirect costs for more than 37,000 employees and their dependents from 2007 to 2010. About three-fourths were men, and 95 percent were under age 65.

There’s much that the analysis doesn’t tell us, of course. Women were underrepresented, and it would be interesting to know how they fare. Is it more costly for women to be treated for a heart attack, and do they sustain more or fewer disability-related costs? What about younger heart attack survivors – those under age 55, for instance?

It’s also notoriously difficult to reckon up the emotional cost, both to patients and to their families, during the immediate crisis and lingering aftermath.

But it’s clear from the American Heart Association report that having a heart attack comes with a price that’s steeper than many of us realize.

I was curious to know how the cost of treating a heart attack stacks up against other situations – for instance, cancer or traumatic injury. According to a statistical comparison developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (you’ll have to scroll down to the bottom of the linked page to find it), cardiovascular disease accounts for the greatest share, far and away, of annual health care costs in the U.S. It outstripped even cancer and diabetes.

Not every heart attack can be prevented. It’s thought that a large percentage of heart attacks are avoidable, however, and many of the most common risk factors – smoking, sedentary lifestyle, elevated blood pressure and/or cholesterol levels that are poorly controlled – can be modified.

If the impact of a heart attack on their overall health is too hazy or theoretical to motivate people, perhaps the practical implications for their wallet might send a stronger message about the value of doing what they can to reduce their risk.

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