Cost of diabetes treatment has doubled in 6 years. Is anyone surprised?

Research out of Stanford USOM indicates that the total money spent on diabetes care went from $6.7bn in 2001 to $12.5bn in 2007. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Every time you turn around, someone’s hammering the dangers of monotherapy down your throat, especially when a comorbidity is present. (When isn’t there one?)

However, I am pleased to see that the Stanford researchers are interested in how much of this extra cost is due to costly new medications that may or may not be worth their price — a topic too rarely discussed in the Ivory Towers of academia. They cite Januvia and Byetta as potential cost centers, but I can’t help but think that they’re missing the mark just a little bit. In outpatient diabetes management — and I’m going to assume that institutions and hospitals are similar — Byetta and Januvia, while successful, aren’t what I would consider blockbusters. They aren’t super mainstream yet.

In terms of quantity and price, the TZDs — particularly Actos, since Avandia got thrown under the bus — are far more costly. Yeah, incretins, whether direct or indirect are the new CME hotness with the associated mindshare, but compared to your TZDs, biguanides, and sulfonylureas, they’re a distant a second/third/fourth fiddle in volume, if not cost.

Drug companies market these new drugs with claims of greater convenience and better control of blood sugar levels, and physicians have increasingly used them as alternatives to injected insulin, Alexander said. Insulin use has correspondingly dropped from 38 percent of treatment visits in 1994 to 28 percent in 2007.

This particular sentence bugs me because the implication is that insulin is cheaper than most oral medications. This just isn’t true, particularly with the modified human insulins that can be very costly indeed. At the very least, they’re on par with the cost of oral meds, and let’s not forget that most people with T2DM would prefer not to stick themselves with a needle, no matter how small.

Talk of direct costs aside, it is obvious that $1 spent in the name of public health has a greater marginal utility than $1 spent on a medical intervention — be that drug therapy, a procedure, or whatever. Ben Franklin was right, after all. Unfortunately, the long-run cost savings of public health programs are notoriously difficult to measure, and certainly nowhere near as sexy as a medical intervention. Perhaps that’s why public health gets shortchanged? I’ve spent some idle moments wondering how much money we could save if we spent a third or even a quarter as much combating things like poor nutrition and obesity as we do on direct healthcare itself.

It seems like the bulk of the money spent on prescription drugs is spent to offset the poor lifestyle choices that we Americans like to make. Unfortunately we pay dearly for that privilege. Any sort of nationalized healthcare will have to take this God-given right tendency into account.

5 thoughts on “Cost of diabetes treatment has doubled in 6 years. Is anyone surprised?

  1. Hello, I’d imagine costs for DM2 care had risen, like everything else, but was surprised to hear the thoughts about public health & nationalized health insurance. It’s been a long time since I took a public health class, but I’d been under the impression that they were cut from the same cloth. Now, that I think of it, I don’t hear about Medicaid paying for diabetes education, but then, I’m not familiar with who utilizes the program, and who pays for it, whether Medicaid, Medicare, or private insurers would reimburse the provider for diabetes classes.

    Occasionally I ‘sub’ for the diabetes pharmacist in hospital practices at very small non-profit county hospitals in the Great Lakes region. From what I seen of programs, diabetes educators try to get newly diagnosed patients out the door with insulin pen products, and have patients return for oral treatment options after dietary and exercise effects are realized. Pens are expensive, but acceptance is so much better than the old ‘fear of needles’ routine.

    When you speak of $1 for public health are you saying ‘education & prevention’. If so, I would agree conceptually. There are probably long-term studies that prove this beyond a doubt.

    And, so I’d venture your point is that any successful nationalized healthcare insurance-type or other type of program would need to incorporate a preventive arm with incentives for greater self-care. A lot of the obesity problem has to do with not bucking the current socially acceptable behaviors, i.e. too much availability of nutritionally cheap food, devaluation of importance of physical effort and exercise, sedentary lifestyle, plus knowledge deficits about foods and hidden human costs. Look at what happened when NYC banned trans fats, for example. I think the fallout will be realized in our lifetime, with a slowly falling domino effect.

    Tell more about what your point is. It sounds interesting.

  2. Hi Cathy, thanks for stopping by. I’ve been reading your comments on JP’s blog for a while now. You’ve raised some good points and questions, and I want to think about and try to formulate a more complete post tonight or tomorrow. There are a few economic considerations I want to think about and research before I write further.

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