Best defense against diseases: early detection and treatment

Early detection and treatment is our strongest defense against the colossal costs — both financial and human — of chronic diseases. This cannot be underscored enough when it comes to diabetes prevention and education.

The most recent estimate of the economic costs of diabetes highlights the toll this disease is taking on Americans nationwide.

In an article to be published in the March 2008 issue of Diabetes Care, the American Diabetes Association estimates that diabetes is costing Americans $174 billion annually — about 30 percent more than only five years ago.

This number deserves our attention because it stands in stark contrast to the costs of detecting and controlling the disease.

A laboratory test that tells whether a patient has high blood glucose levels costs $7.40. A hemoglobin A1C test that tracks changes in a patient’s glucose levels over three months costs $13.

With the information from these relatively inexpensive lab tests, physicians can prescribe dietary changes, exercise, medications or insulin to keep blood glucose levels in the safe and appropriate range.

When levels stay in that range, patients can gain, on average, about five more years of life, eight more years of eyesight, and six more years of freedom from kidney disease.

Controlling diabetes also means controlling or preventing some of the damaging long-term complications that can result from disease — peripheral artery disease, heart disease, stroke, amputation and kidney failure.

Thus, a $13 hemoglobin A1C test can reduce the likelihood of a heart attack, for which treatment costs about $28,000; amputation, which costs about $27,000; and kidney dialysis, which costs more than $50,000 per year.

But the costs and benefits of controlling diabetes go beyond just direct medical costs. Americans with diabetes lost 15 million workdays in 2007 due to the disease — at a cost of approximately $2.6 billion. And they experienced reduced performance while at work — an equivalent of 120 million lost workdays when it is all added up.

Thus, proper testing and treatment is more than just a matter of national health expenditures. It is a matter of economic well-being for workers, families and employers.

As co-chairwoman of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, I am focused on diabetes prevention. But the lessons of diabetes apply to other chronic diseases as well, such as heart disease, cancer and kidney disease. Early detection and treatment matter. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, chronic diseases — which constitute some 75 percent of total U.S. healthcare costs — are among the most preventable.

Obviously, diabetes and other chronic diseases are much more than just numbers.

But the numbers convey a deeper story that must truly enter our national consciousness if we are to bring chronic conditions under control. That is, we have the tests, treatments, data, and knowledge to control the devastating impact of these diseases. We don’t have to wait for a miracle cure.

As Congress and the presidential candidates of both parties address the complex health care challenges facing America, we all must not overlook the practical, evidence-based, real-world solutions that already lie at our fingertips.

DeGette is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.