How Changes in Medical Technology Affect Health Care Costs
Health expenditures continue to grow very rapidly in the U.S. Since 1970, health care spending has grown at an average annual rate of 9.8%, or about 2.5 percentage points faster than the economy as measured by the nominal gross domestic product (GDP). Annual spending on health care increased from $75 billion in 1970 to $2.0 trillion in 2005, and is estimated to reach $4 trillion in 2015. As a share of the economy, health care has more than doubled over the past 35 years, rising from 7.2% of GDP in 1970 to 16.0% of GDP in 2005, and is projected to be 20% of GDP in 2015. Health care spending per capita increased from $356 in 1970 to $6,697 in 2005, and is projected to rise to $12,320 in 2015. 1
The particularly rapid increases in health insurance premiums over the last few years have focused the health policy community on the issues of cost containment and health insurance affordability. A key question from policymakers is why spending on health care consistently rises more rapidly than spending on other goods and services. Health care experts point to the development and diffusion of medical technology as primary factors in explaining the persistent difference between health spending and overall economic growth, with some arguing that new medical technology may account for about one-half or more of real long-term spending growth. This paper briefly describes what health policy analysts mean by medical technology and the mechanisms by which it affects the growth in health care costs.
What is Medical Technology?
Broadly speaking, the term “medical technology” can be used to refer to the procedures, equipment, and processes by which medical care is delivered. Examples of changes in technology would include new medical and surgical procedures (e.g., angioplasty, joint replacements), drugs (e.g., biologic agents), medical devices (e.g., CT scanners, implantable defibrillators), and new support systems (e.g., electronic medical records and transmission of information, telemedicine). 2 There is very little in the field of medicine that does not use some type of medical technology and that has not been affected by new technology.
Heart disease and its consequence, heart attack, is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and a good example of how new technology has changed the treatment and prevention of a disease over time. In the 1970s, cardiac care units were introduced, lidocaine was used to manage irregular heartbeat, beta-blockers were used to lower blood pressure in the first 3 hours after a heart attack, “clot buster” drugs began to be widely used, and coronary artery bypass surgery became more prevalent. In the 1980s, blood-thinning agents were used after a heart attack to prevent reoccurrences, beta-blocker therapy evolved from short-term therapy immediately after a heart attack to maintenance therapy, and angioplasty (minimally invasive surgery) was used after heart attack patients were stable. In the 1990s, more effective drugs were introduced to inhibit clot formation, angioplasty was used for treatment and revascularization along with stents to keep blood vessels open, cardiac rehabilitation programs were implemented sooner, and implantable cardiac defibrillators were used in certain patients with irregular heartbeats. In the 2000s, better tests became available to diagnose heart attack, drug-eluting stents were used, and new drug strategies were developed (aspirin, ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, statins) for long-term management of heart attack and potential heart attack patients. From 1980-2000, the overall mortality rate from heart attack fell by almost half, from 345.2 to 186.0 per 100,000 persons. 3
Another example of how advances in technology have changed health outcomes over time is in the treatment of pre-term babies, for which very little could be done in 1950. But by 1990, changes in technology, including special ventilators, artificial pulmonary surfactant to help infant lungs develop, neonatal intensive care, and steroids for mother and/or baby, helped decrease mortality to one-third its 1950 level, with an overall increase in life expectancy of about 12 years per low-birthweight baby. 4
How Does New Medical Technology Affect Health Care Spending and Costs?
While a particular new technology may either increase or decrease health care spending, researchers generally agree that, taken together, advances in medical technology have contributed to rising overall U.S. health care spending. Rettig describes how new medical technology affects the costs of health care through the following “mechanisms of action”:5
- Development of new treatments for previously untreatable terminal conditions, including long-term maintenance therapy for treatment of such diseases as diabetes, end-stage renal disease, and AIDS;
- Major advances in clinical ability to treat previously untreatable acute conditions, such as coronary artery bypass graft;
- Development of new procedures for discovering and treating secondary diseases within a disease, such as erythropoietin to treat anemia in dialysis patients;
- Expansion of the indications for a treatment over time, increasing the patient population to which the treatment is applied;
- On-going, incremental improvements in existing capabilities, which may improve quality;
- Clinical progress, through major advances or by the cumulative effect of incremental improvements, that extends the scope of medicine to conditions once regarded as beyond its boundaries, such as mental illness and substance abuse.
Whether a particular new technology will increase or reduce total health expenditures depends on several factors. One is its impact on the cost of treating an individual patient. Does the new technology supplement existing treatment, or is it a full or partial substitute for current approaches? Do these changes result in higher or lower health spending for each patient treated? In looking at the impact on cost per patient, consideration needs to be given to whether the direct costs of the new technology include any effect on the use or cost of other health care services such as hospital days or physician office visits.
A second factor is the level of use that a new technology achieves (i.e., how many times is the new technology used?). Does the new technology extend treatment to a broader population? -- examples would be innovations that address previously untreatable illness, diagnose new populations for existing treatments, or extend existing treatments to new conditions. New technologies can also reduce utilization -- for example, new screening or diagnosis capacity that allows more targeted treatment. There also are temporal aspects to evaluating the impact of new technologies on costs. Some innovations, such as a new vaccine, may cost more immediately but may lead to savings down the road if the vaccine results in fewer people seeking more expensive treatment. New technologies also can extend life expectancy, which affects both the type and amount of health care that people use in their lifetime.
Evaluating the impact of new innovation can be complicated. For example, a case study that focuses on a single technology or disease may show cost savings based on the costs and benefits of the new technology if it replaces a more expensive technology and provides health improvements, while an analysis of health care system-wide costs may show cost increases if the new technology results in greater utilization than the old. A specific example is anesthesia, where substantial innovations have occurred in recent years. Better anesthetic agents and practices have reduced the burden of surgery on patients, producing faster patient recoveries, shorter hospital stays, and fewer medical errors. These changes reduce the cost per patient compared to surgery in the absence of these changes. At the same time, these innovations also make it possible to perform surgeries on patients who previously would have been considered too frail to undergo the surgery; this adds to the amount of health care that is delivered system-wide, thus perhaps increasing total health care spending.
It is not possible to directly measure the impact of new medical technology on total health care spending; innovation in the health care sector occurs continuously, and the impacts of different changes interrelate. The size of the health sector (16% of gross domestic product in 2005) and its diversity (thousands of procedures, products, and interventions) also render direct measurement impractical. Economists have used indirect approaches to try to estimate the impact of new technology on the cost of health care. 6 In an often-cited article, Newhouse estimates the impact of medical technology on health care spending by first estimating the impact of factors that can reasonably be accounted for (e.g., spread of insurance, increasing per capita income, aging of the population, supplier-induced demand, low medical sector productivity gains). He concludes that the factors listed above account for well under half of the growth in real medical spending, and that the bulk of the unexplained residual increase should be attributed to technological change – what he calls “the enhanced capabilities of medicine.”7
What Factors Affect the Growth of New Medical Technology?
Many factors influence innovation in medical care. Consumer demand for better health is a prime factor. Research shows that the use of medical care rises with income: as people and the nation become wealthier, they provide a fertile market for new medical innovations. Consumers want medical care that will help them achieve and maintain good health, and advances in medical technology are perceived as ways to promote those goals. Consumer demand is affected by the increased public awareness of medical technology through the media, the Internet, and direct-to-consumer advertising.