The price of gas is a headache for every consumer. But the health impacts of high fuel prices go beyond that metaphorical symptom.
Consider: medical supplies and home health. But it’s not all bad news: on the positive side, higher fuel prices could positive impact the obesity epidemic and the rate of motor vehicle fatalities. Read on.

Latex gloves and med-surg supplies. Think about one of the most ubiquitous medical supplies: gloves. Walgreens recently said a box of 120 private-label latex gloves has nearly doubled in price. In 2007, a consumer could purchase two boxes for $9.99; today, the store has a sale price of $7.99 for a single box. There’s a lot of oil in those protective goods.

Hospitals use petrol-intensive supplies ranging from gloves to bed pans and tubing, according to a column in the Youngstown Vindicator. A 200-bed hospital can use 16,000 gloves per day (6 million a year).

The largest glove manufacturer is located in Malaysia and controls 65% market share in rubber gloves. They may be cutting production this year as they’re not able to pass on cost increases to American hospitals already hit by inflation and a weak dollar.

According to the Health Industry Distributors Association (HIDA), hospital supply-chain budgets are being hit hard by the price of oil. According to a recent article in Modern Healthcare, this is severely impacting the group purchasing organization (GPO) market, which provides supplies in bulk to hospitals. In some instances, vendors are forcing price increases or threatening cancelling supplies contracts. For the Henry Ford Hospital System, as an example, a 1% increase in medical-surgical product prices equates to ‘a couple of million dollars,’ according to Ford’s vice president of supply chain.

Home health hurts. Perhaps the most direct impact of high gas prices on health is in the area of house calls — especially home health care. There are providers, especially in rural areas, that are considering leaving the field due to gas price pressures on their costs of care. Some provider organizations are giving staff prepaid gas cards and rental cars in places like New York and California. There is legislation in Congress from Sen. Tim Johnson to address the impact of fuel prices on Medicare payments. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging recently surveyed their membership and found that half of their constituents had cut back on home visits because of gas prices. 90% expect to cut visits in 2009. See more about this serious story in a July 20th AP news story, House calls? Not with gas prices skyrocketing.

And now, for some more positive possibilities…

Positive public health outcomes for obesity and motor vehicle fatalities? A July 12th 2008 blog in Wired claims that “Rising Gas Prices Could Cure Obesity.” According to Professors Michael Morrisey of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and David Grabowski of Harvard Medical School, every 10% increase in gas prices leads to a 2.3% decline in auto deaths. That’s even greater in younger drivers. Morrisey and Grabowski presented this research at a recent meeting of the American Society of Health Economists. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. See, As Gas Prices Rise, U.S. Traffic Deaths Fall.

In another study, A Silver Lining? The Connection Between Gasoline Prices and Obesity, Charles Courtemanche, an assistant economics professor at Washington U. in St. Louis, calculates that a $1 increase in the price of gas could cut obesity by 10 percent. (This paper is Courtemanche’s dissertation, under peer review). He looked at 20 years of data on U.S. fuel prices and health statistics, finding that obesity doubled to nearly one-third between 1979 and 2004. Courtemanche attributed 8% of the increase to low fuel prices and said, “Cheaper gas during that period made us fat.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points: In the immediate term, gas prices’ impact on home health could have disastrous implications for rural and exurban citizens’ access to necessary care. Congress could remedy this quickly — before 90% of home care agencies reduce visits in 2009 — with relief through home health Medicare payments. In the intermediate and longer term, high gas prices call for the redesign of home health by incorporating new technologies in homes and among providers to help people stay well at home. This must include expanding telehealth, remote monitoring and health visits via web- and phone-conferencing. Intel’s recent FDA-approval for its Health Guide is an example of such a technology that’s ready for prime-time.

Perhaps high gas prices will be a boon to motivate this important change in the home health and healthy aging front.