Stanford University

Air Pollution Linked To Increased Costs And Medical Care For The Elderly

A new study has demonstrated the strong correlation between air pollution and air quality and the level of costs incurred in by elderly patients seeking medical attention. The study took in millions of Medicare records of both in- and out-patients between 1989 and 1991 all the patients were white and aged between 65 and 84 years.

The study was conducted by Professor Victor Fuchs, professor emeritus at Stanford University and assisted by Sarah Franks, a doctoral student at Berkeley, University of California. The study results were published in the November/December issue of Health Affairs, and the conclusive results demonstrate a direct linkage between air pollution and the level of health, particularly respiratory health in elderly patients. More than this, the study demonstrates that investment in improving air quality and reducing pollution leads to direct cost savings which are substantial.

At a time when there is a great debate centered around healthcare, and especially who will be footing the bill, the report clearly demonstrates that pollution control provides an excellent opportunity for improving the nation’s health, reducing the cost of healthcare and provides opportunities to improve the quality of life for the elderly.

Factors taken into consideration in the study, which took in 183 metropolitan areas, included regional geographical variations, per capita income, educational achievement, ethnic breakdown of the sample location, weight levels (particularly obesity levels) and cigarette usage.

There are clear differences between urban and rural areas within the study samples; metropolitan areas also varied widely in the quality of the air and pollution levels the study demonstrates that there is only a small difference in rates of surgery between high and low pollution sample locations, however this picture radically changes when medical intervention short of surgery is assessed.

Outpatient care has a 7% difference between high and low air pollution locations, but when we look at inpatient care the difference increases dramatically to 19% more people seeking treatment in the more highly polluted sample locations.

Population size and density has a very significant impact on air quality Florida and Blue Sky country (centered upon Montana) has the cleanest air but Florida had twice the outpatient treatment rate (this being a factor of the higher population size and density). Hospital admissions were found to be at their highest in the Deep South and South Western areas of the country.

Overall, differences in admissions to hospital for respiratory conditions between low and high air pollution locations are relatively low; the data must be interpreted with care because of the small difference. Nevertheless, there is a clear relationship between air pollution and the need for increased medical intervention for the elderly. As the authors state in the conclusion of the report, the results do not provide, “absolute proof” that high pollution areas result in higher spending on medical care, however the data results are highly persuasive.

Irrespective of whether the study constitutes “absolute proof” or not, there is a clear need for greater outpatient medical treatment for those living in highly populated and highly polluted areas. The correlation between high pollution levels and population levels also demonstrates just who is actually responsible for creating the problem with air quality in the first instance.

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