Rising cataract surgeries raise access, cost issues

October 15, 2013

With no sign of cataract surgery demand leveling off, Mayo Clinic researchers share need to manage costs and ensure access to treatment.

Rochester, MN-As baby boomers enter their retirement years, healthcare costs for complex and debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease are expected to soar. Not drawing as much attention is the likelihood of similarly rising expenses for common age-related medical procedures. A Mayo Clinic study looked at one of those-cataract surgery-and found that more people are getting the vision-improving procedure, seeking it at younger ages and having both eyes repaired within a few months, rather than treating only one eye. The demand shows no sign of leveling off, raising the need to manage costs and ensure access to appropriate cataract treatment, say researchers.

The findings are published in the Journal of Cataract & Refractive Surgery.

“Cataract surgery rates are rising in all age groups between ages 50 to 90, but the greatest increase is in the group aged 70 to 80 years. Part of that is that our older population, or the aging baby boomers, are working longer, they want to be more active, they have more demands on their vision,” says senior author Jay Erie, MD, at the Mayo Clinic. “That’s why they’re looking for surgery sooner-so they can remain independent, remain active, continue to work.”

In the United States, age-related cataracts affect at least 22 million people and cost an estimated $6.8 billion to treat each year; the cataract caseload is expected to rise to 30 million people by 2020, the researchers noted.

Despite the common nature of cataracts, the U.S. has little current population-based data on cataract surgery, information that can help estimate demand. For the Mayo study, researchers mined the National Institutes of Health-funded Rochester Epidemiology Project to identify cataract surgeries in Olmsted County, MN, from 2005-2011. The project, a partnership of Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center, and other health providers, makes the county one of few places worldwide where researchers can examine medical data on virtually everyone to see how often conditions strike and whether treatments succeed. 

The research found:

• Cataract surgery has increased steadily, peaking in 2011 at a rate of 1,100 per 100,000 people.

• Some 60% of patients undergoing unilateral cataract surgery returned within three months for second-eye surgery, a significant increase over the number in a previous Mayo study, which covered 1998 to 2004.

• The mean annual rate of cataract surgery for women was significantly higher than for men.

• There were significant increases in cataract surgery over the past 32 years among people in all age groups, except those 90 and older.

The trend raises questions about treatment costs and the resources needed to meet demand, says Dr. Erie.

The study was funded by Research to Prevent Blindness and Mayo Foundation.