What are the biggest health problems in the U.S.? It depends on whom you ask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would put heart disease at the top of the list, since it's the leading cause of death in the nation. If we looked to Google for an answer, Americans searched for information about hemorrhoids more than any other health problem in 2012.
Probably the best source to ask about the biggest health problems facing Americans, though, are Americans themselves. Here are the top eight health problems identified by U.S. respondents in a 2012 Gallup poll.
For the 10th year in a row, Americans listed access to health care as one of their top two concerns. Obamacare's mandate that individuals purchase insurance goes into effect in 2014, so it will be interesting to see if this issue remains near the top of the list. For now, nearly a quarter of all Americans view access as the nation's most significant health issue.
The high cost of health care has also ranked in the top two problems cited by Americans since 2003. If health insurance company predictions come true, expect this issue to stay among American's top concerns.
Aetna (NYSE:AET) CEO Mark Bertolini said that a "premium rate shock" was in store for next year with some insurance premiums doubling. Bertolini isn't alone with this line of thinking. UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) warned brokers earlier this year that some customers could see their premiums more than double, and some small business rates could jump by as much as 50%.
Insurers like Aetna and UnitedHealth will raise premiums largely because of the increased numbers of individuals with poor health who will buy insurance under Obamacare. Aetna actually encouraged brokers to reenroll members at the end of 2013 rather than in 2014 to delay cost increases. Both Aetna and UnitedHealth will attempt to make up for any negatives from the individual insurance market by growing their respective Medicare and Medicaid managed care businesses.
The number of Americans who think obesity is the most urgent health problem has doubled in the last six years. According to the CDC, more than a third of adult Americans are obese. Some economists estimate that obesity-related costs account for more than 20% of total U.S. health-care expenditures.
Cancer continues to take its toll on Americans, causing more than 570,000 deaths in 2011. Understandably, the disease ranks highly among health challenges that face the U.S. The good news is that more effective treatments have become available with more on the way.
For example, Medivation (NASDAQ:MDVN) and partner Astellas Pharma received approval for prostate cancer drug Xtandi last August -- three months ahead of schedule. Medivation also recently obtained a positive recommendation for Xtandi in Europe. In clinical studies, Xtandi prolonged survival rates in patients with advanced prostate cancer by five months compared to placebo.
While the U.S. commercial launch just got cranked up, some industry experts expect Xtandi to reach annual sales of more than $2 billion in the next several years. Success of drugs like this helps patients and investors alike.
5. Government interference
Is Uncle Sam less of an uncle and more like George Orwell's "Big Brother" when it comes to health care? Many Americans might think so, resulting in government interference taking the fifth spot among health problems. Controversy over some provisions in Obamacare appear to be a likely reason for this issue ranking so highly.
6. Heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., but comes in only at sixth place from the perspective of Americans according to the Gallup survey. Studies show that the most common type of heart disease, coronary heart disease, results in more than 385,000 deaths annually and costs nearly $109 billion.
More than 25 million Americans battle diabetes, so it's no surprise that the disease placed among the top health concerns. Diabetes contributes to many other health problems, including kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, and blindness.
As with several other health issues, there is some good news. For example, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE:JNJ) Invokana for type 2 diabetes. The drug controls blood sugar through a different mechanism than other available treatments.
Although there are plenty of diabetes drugs available, many think Invokana's unique approach will make it successful for patients and for J&J. Analysts expect the drug will attain sales of around $468 million by 2016.
The CDC estimates that more than 15,500 Americans died from AIDS in 2010. There's good news on this front also in the U.S. and across the world. The United Nations AIDS Program says that death rates have declined as access to medications become more readily available.
Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD) stands as the leading maker of these medications. The biotech's Atripla is currently the most-used HIV drug. Atripla garnered $3.57 billion in revenue in 2012, up 11% from the prior year. Gilead obtained FDA approval recently for a new treatment, Stribild, which combines four of its drugs into one pill.
Even with the progress, some roadblocks have been encountered in the battle against AIDS. Gilead attempted to obtain separate regulatory approval for two of the drugs included in Stribild -- elvitegravir and cobicistat. However, the FDA announced it would not approve the drugs in April due to concerns about documentation and quality testing procedures. Gilead is working to address these issues.
Looking for answers
Thankfully, progress is being made on several of these problems. However, much work remains to be done.
Did the Americans who responded to Gallup's poll include the most pressing health issues in your view? If not, what are the nation's top health concerns? Let us know your answer in the comments below.
Fool contributor Keith Speights has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Gilead Sciences and UnitedHealth Group. It recommends and owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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