Medical debt is associated with population health and increased mortality

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In a recent cross-sectional study published in JAMA Network Open, researchers from the United States of America (US) investigated, at the county level, the association between medical debt and population health outcomes in the US.

They found that medical debt is associated with worsened health status and increased premature deaths and mortality in the population.

​​​​​​​Study: Associations of Medical Debt With Health Status, Premature Death, and Mortality in the US. Image Credit: Pormezz/Shutterstock.com​​​​​​​Study: Associations of Medical Debt With Health Status, Premature Death, and Mortality in the US. Image Credit: Pormezz/Shutterstock.com

Background

Increasing economic burden and out-of-pocket costs for healthcare in the US have led to a concerning rise in medical debt, affecting 17.8% of individuals in 2020.

Certain vulnerable populations, including racial and ethnic minorities, females, younger individuals, and those with chronic diseases face a higher risk of incurring medical debt.

This debt is linked to adverse impacts on well-being, such as delayed healthcare, prescription nonadherence, and increased food and housing insecurity. Despite these individual-level associations, the county-level impact of medical debt on health outcomes remains poorly understood.

The present study aimed to address this gap by examining the relationships between medical debt and health status, mortality, and premature death at the county level in the US, using data from the Urban Institute Debt in America project.

About the study

In the present study, debt data was obtained from a 2% nationally representative panel of deidentified records from a credit bureau. A total of 2,943 US counties were included, of which 39.2% were in metropolitan regions. The counties had a median 18.3% of residents above 65 years of age.

The median racial breakdown of residents was as follows: 0.4% American Indian/Alaska Native, 0.8% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3.0% Black, 4.3% Hispanic, and 84.5% White.

The excluded counties were predominantly non-metropolitan and had a smaller population size and a reduced socio-demographic diversity.

The study investigated three health outcome sets from public data sources, including self-reported health status, premature death measured by years of potential life lost, and age-adjusted all-cause mortality rates and cause-specific mortality rates for leading causes such as cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and suicide, at the county level in the US.

Furthermore, the study considered county-level sociodemographic factors from the US Census data, including racial distribution, educational attainment, uninsured status, unemployment, and metropolitan status, as potential confounders.

The analysis considered two medical debt measures: the primary measure assessed the percentage of individuals with medical debt in collections, while the secondary measure focused on the median amount of medical debt (in 2018 US dollars).

Overall debt, including medical and other kinds of debt, were also included in the supplementary analyses.

Statistical analysis involved the use of descriptive analysis as well as bivariate and multivariable linear models, incorporating random state-level intercepts and weighted by county population size.

Results and discussion

An average of 19.8% of the studied population had medical debt. Counties with fewer White and more Black residents, lower education levels, increased poverty, lack of insurance, and unemployment appeared to have higher medical debt rates.

It was found that a 1% increase in the population of medical debt-holders was associated with 18.3 more physically unhealthy days and 17.9 more mentally unhealthy days per 1,000 people in 30 days.

The percent-increase in medical debt-holders was also found to be associated with 1.12 years of life lost per 1,000 people and a rise of 7.51 per 100,000 person-years in age-adjusted all-cause mortality rate.

Consistent associations were found for major causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and suicide.

Patterns were found to be similar for associations between the median amount of medical debt and the selected health outcomes. Supplemental analyses showed similar association patterns between medical debt and health outcomes.

This nationwide study reaffirms that medical debt remains a significant social determinant of public health.

However, the study is limited by the potential underrepresentation of medical debt in less populous counties, the inability to examine specific sources of medical debt, the exclusion of individuals not in the credit system, and the need for further research on the impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)-related policies on medical debt and population health.

Additionally, a broader focus on overall debt suggested that policies addressing various debts, like student loans, may impact population health.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the study revealed associations between medical debt and adverse health outcomes, such as increased unhealthy days, premature deaths, and elevated mortality rates.

The results highlight the need for collaborative efforts among various stakeholders, including government entities, healthcare systems, hospitals, and employers, to mitigate medical debt with paid sick leave, clear financial assistance policies, and improved cost-related communication with patients.

Further, enhancing access to affordable healthcare through policies like expanding health insurance coverage may improve the overall health of the US population.

Journal reference:
Dr. Sushama R. Chaphalkar

Written by

Dr. Sushama R. Chaphalkar

Dr. Sushama R. Chaphalkar is a senior researcher and academician based in Pune, India. She holds a PhD in Microbiology and comes with vast experience in research and education in Biotechnology. In her illustrious career spanning three decades and a half, she held prominent leadership positions in academia and industry. As the Founder-Director of a renowned Biotechnology institute, she worked extensively on high-end research projects of industrial significance, fostering a stronger bond between industry and academia.  

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