Study Reveals Alarming Link Between Medical Debt and Declining Health in the United States

Medical debt in the United States correlates with deteriorating physical and mental well-being, as well as premature mortality, according to a recent study conducted by the American Cancer Society. The research revealed that with each $100 rise in medical debt, there was an increase of eight days in poor physical health and 6.8 days in poor mental health per month per 1,000 individuals.

The escalating costs of healthcare nationwide present an ongoing obstacle for millions of Americans. Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services illustrates the enormity of the issue, indicating that healthcare expenditure reached $4.5 trillion in 2022, roughly translating to $13,500 per person, with out-of-pocket spending amounting to $471.4 billion.

Despite over 90% of the population possessing some form of health insurance, the burden of medical debt persists for both insured and uninsured individuals due to out-of-network expenses, high deductibles, and unforeseen bills, experts explained.

Examining data spanning nearly 3,000 counties, encompassing 93% of the nation, researchers sought to understand the repercussions of medical debt on health outcomes. While the study did not establish causation, it highlighted a robust correlation, aligning with prior research indicating that financial strain contributes to poorer health outcomes.

For every 1% increase in the prevalence of medical debt within a population, the study found a corresponding increase of 18 days in poor physical health, 18 days in poor mental health, and one additional year lost per 1,000 individuals.

Dr. Xuesong Han, the lead author of the study, emphasized the systemic nature of the issue, stating, “[Medical debt] is a problem that needs to be addressed systematically.”

The study identified certain demographic trends associated with higher rates of medical debt. Counties with larger proportions of non-Hispanic Black residents, lower educational attainment, higher rates of poverty, and greater numbers of uninsured and unemployed individuals tended to exhibit a higher prevalence of medical debt. On average, across all counties, approximately 19.8% of Americans had medical debt in collections. Geographically, Southern counties bore the brunt of the highest medical debt burdens.

Researchers noted that the data analyzed preceded the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring the necessity for further investigation into post-pandemic shifts in the healthcare system and public health.

Han underscored the importance of policy interventions aimed at tackling this issue, advocating for initiatives such as “expanding access to affordable and comprehensive health insurance coverage” and “providing financial guidance and linking patients with pertinent resources to mitigate any adverse impacts.”