Infographic of the Day: The Cost of Getting Sick

Where does all the money go, when we’re caring for chronically ill patients?

Cost of Sick

After a year of debates and inflammatory rhetoric, we’re finally nearly the 11th hour for health-care reform: Over the weekend, the U.S. Senate voted to begin hearing debates on a bill designed to bring health care to the uninsured.


The most bruising fights lie ahead, since the ensuing debate will shape the final bill–but this was an important procedural milestone.

So given that, today we bring you a spectacular health-scare graphic, designed by Ben Fry, a demi-god in the discipline. “The Cost of Getting Sick” illustrates exactly where we spend all out money, in managing chronic disease.

The data is drawn from both 500K records from GE’s databases and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a blue-chip study of medical expenses.

Though the graph looks simple, it belies a mammoth amount of information. Each section of the pie chart is devoted to a different chronic disease, from hypertension to depression. And each section has four–count ’em–data elements. The height represents the yearly cost of managing an average person’s condition; the width represents the total cost to the system, on all those people combined. The color coding inside the section tells you how much cost is borne by insurances companies, versus individuals. Meanwhile, what’s even cooler: A slider at the bottom lets you look at the data by age.

From simply a data-visualization POV, it’s amazing stuff. Ben Fry is no joke.

But with respect to the current debates, the graphic highlights a couple important points. You’ll see, using the slider, that the highest chronic health-care costs occur among the elderly. No surprise there. But the elderly also happen to be covered by Medicare.


So why is it so important to cover more people with health insurance? Simply because if you don’t maximize the people participating in an insurance plan, you can’t achieve the economies of scale required to lower prices, system wide. And if health-care costs continue to rise, our economy is facing disaster.

The uninsured are largely either young or middle aged–they don’t pay for insurance, but when they do get sick, it tends to be catastrophic, and extremely expensive. To manage that risk, you need those people inside some sort of insurance system.

They might not look like a big consideration in the graph above, but really, the debate right now centers on them.

[Via Flowing Data]


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.