- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

National spending for trauma treatment from car accidents, violence, falls or fires nearly doubled between 1996 and 2003, raising it to the same cost level as heart disease, a new federal study has found.

And unlike heart disease, which saw a caseload grow from 16.6 million in 1996 to 20 million in 2003, the number of Americans with medical expenses for injuries did not change, according to the report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

About 40 million people required medical care for injuries and disorders in both 1996 and 2003, AHRQ, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, found.

“This means an increasing intensity of [medical] services are being provided to trauma patients,” said economist Joel Cohen, director of the Division of Social and Economic Research in ARHQ’s Center for Finance Access and Health Trends, who discovered the big increase in the cost of trauma care.

“We know that hospital costs have been going up … and that technological advances are a major driver of health care costs,” Mr. Cohen said. “So hospitals may be concentrating on these kinds of treatments, which are proving more expensive to treat the same number of patients.”

Data show that national spending for trauma cases totaled $37.1 billion in 1996. That compared with expenditures of $58 billion for heart disease, traditionally the largest medical expenditure, and $37.7 billion for cancer.

But by 2003, AHRQ found that costs of treating trauma injuries reached $71.6 billion. That compared with $67.8 billion for treatment of heart disease and $48.4 billion for cancer treatment.

Rick Wade, senior vice president of the American Hospital Association, said he is not surprised by these findings. “Trauma care has become both very technological and very expensive,” he said.

“We can save people today who would have died just a few years ago. The kind of specially trained people and the kind of equipment involved in trauma care are both enormously expensive,” he added.

Mr. Wade pointed out that emergency rescues by medevac helicopters, the “rapid response” by highly skilled surgeons and nurses, and what can be “months of rehabilitation” for a patient all contribute to the high cost of trauma services.

“We’re constructing more trauma centers because there is a huge demand for trauma care. The public is happy to pay for these facilities because they want them closer so they can save lives,” he explained.

Mr. Wade noted that 60 percent of a hospital’s costs is for staffing, and trauma center medical personnel are specially trained for their duties.

AHRQ gleaned its data from its Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, or MEPS, which annually interviews about 38,000 people in 15,000 U.S. households as to their family’s use of health care services and medical expenses.

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