The ‘Financial Toxicity’ of Health Care Treatment

Dennis Thompson with HealthDay News describes an op-ed published in the New England Journal of Medicine written by three doctors who make the case that the financial burden of medical bills can impact health right along with the injury or disease itself.

The authors go so far as to characterize that burden as "toxic," and Thompson takes a few lines from the op-ed:

"Because treatments can be 'financially toxic,' imposing out-of-pocket costs that may impair patients' well-being, we contend that physicians need to disclose the financial consequences of treatment alternatives just as they inform patients about treatments' side effects."

As patients weigh their treatment options and make decisions on how to go forward, making the financial aspect of treatment part of the conversation is something that should be happening, argue the doctors.

"[We give patients chemotherapy that we know is going to cause a physical toxicity we can't stop. We talk with them about how to best cope and expect it. That's how we should start thinking about the financial toxicity of some of the health care we provide."

It's no secret that the cost of healthcare in the U.S. is high. In Mortimer Zuckerman's op-ed in the U.S. News & World Report, the high cost of staying well, Zuckerman writes that our spending on healthcare for 2013 will hit roughly $2.8 trillion, before listing the various potential causes for this spending, from uninsured patients to defensive medicine.

But no matter what the cause of the high cost of healthcare in the U.S., the resulting " financial toxicity," as the doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine aptly characterized it, has a severe impact on patients' and consumers' lives, many of whom must turn to bankruptcy to get a fresh start.

The Journal piece suggests an elegant, if simple, solution to the problem, even if it's just one small step in the right direction: "Have you looked into the cost of your treatment?" Thompson quotes the research director for a health care advocacy organization. "If so, have you looked into what your [insurance] plan covers?"

Could it really be as simple as having a conversation with your doctor about the financial side effects of treatment? The answer is likely no, when it comes to lowering the cost of health care overall in the U.S., and perhaps even on a case-by-case basis for an individual patient's medical bills. But it could certainly go a long way toward easing some of the patient's worry and anxiety about their financial situation. After all, if they're sick, they've got enough to worry about.