There's a lot happening in health care right now that makes life difficult for hospital executives, staff, clinicians and patients, but the outlook could take a fairly sharp turn for the better.
Just about everything in health care is changing — including how it's provided, improved, tracked and paid for — which is making it difficult for hospitals to operate and putting added pressure on providers who are already under stress. The situation could get worse, thanks to the aging of the relatively sicker baby boomer generation, a group that embodies a demographic challenge for the Medicare program that will last for years.
Yet, one place hope may be found is in the potential for genetic research to drastically improve providers' ability to care for patients with conditions or diseases that carry high costs from both a personal and financial perspective.
Given the prominent role genetics plays in disease and the innovative approaches researchers are using to find genetic causes and cures, the list of the biggest killers may look very different 10 or 15 years from now.
We likely still won't have a practical jet pack for travel by then, but we may have found genetics-related cures for some of the nation's most devastating diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and chronic lower-respiratory diseases like COPD.
Researchers for the fifth biggest killer of those ages 65 and older, Alzheimer's, may have received the key to using genetics to cure or prevent the damaging affliction with the National Institute of Health's release of a first batch of genome sequence data for 410 individuals in 89 families. Part of a national effort called the Alzheimer's Disease Sequencing Project, the sequence data is designed to intensify advancements more quickly than traditional research might.
"Providing raw DNA sequence data to a wide range of researchers proves a powerful crowd-sourced way to find genomic changes that put us at increased risk for this devastating disease," said Francis Collins, M.D., NIH director, in a news release. The data were released under a plan created by the National Alzheimer's Project Act of 2011, according to the NIH.
Imagine what that would mean for a health care system currently treating an estimated 5 million patients 65 years or older per year, according to the NIH. One study estimated the direct and indirect cost of caring for patients older than 70 years old with dementia was between $157 billion and $215 billion in 2010, with Medicare covering $11 billion of that cost.
Just as it's difficult for someone of my generation to imagine a world without vaccines that prevent diseases like polio, in a decade or two it might be difficult to imagine what it's like to not have a cure for a disease like Alzheimer's.
A scenario like that for one major disease could drastically boost the entire health care system, freeing up clinical and financial resources for other care needs.