As we've expanded our willingness to pay for care—through private actions and government support—healthcare as an industry has met the challenge. It's proved able to absorb our trillions in additional dollars by charging higher prices, convincing us that more expensive options provide better results, and expanding our definitions of "need." In other words, healthcare has done what any industry does to increase its market and revenue base in the face of rising consumer demand.
But healthcare as an industry isn't quite like consumer products or automobiles or food. Sure, Procter & Gamble, Ford, and General Mills try to grow by raising prices, introducing new and improved versions of existing products, and extending their product lines. But they must do so in a constant give-and-take with the consumer, overcoming natural consumer resistance to spending more money; what makes healthcare unique is the absence of this consumer in the equation. So healthcare companies can raise prices, introduce "better" products, and expand the definition of what your health requires without the typical consumer resistance—without needing to prove that a new product is worth a high price.
The most important strategy of the healthcare industry has been to endlessly increase our demand for healthcare. To maintain its continued access to the most generous of customers—private insurers, Medicare, and Medicaid—the healthcare industry must convince us that its services fulfill genuine needs, not merely wants, as all other goods and services do. And once a treatment is considered a need, how can those customers possibly argue it isn't worth paying for?
The precise definition of a chronic disease varies, but these ailments are usually identified as long lasting, noncontagious, and resistant to cure. Chronic diseases can range from the primarily annoying (hay fever), to the frequently debilitating (arthritis, diabetes, schizophrenia), to the potentially fatal (heart disease, cancer).
Increasingly, patients refer to chronic "conditions" instead of "diseases," especially when describing their growth. Roughly half of American adults have been diagnosed with at least one chronic condition; a 2007 report suggests that the number of diagnoses will increase by 42 percent in the next fifteen years. Some of this rapid growth of diagnosed chronic conditions relates to the aging of our population: the average American over 65 has at least two identified conditions. But even among younger people—in fact, in every measured age group—chronic conditions are flourishing.
On the surface, this epidemic of chronic conditions makes little sense. We smoke less, drink less, and work in less physically stressful jobs. Seniors are retiring healthier than they have in any previous generation. How is it possible that we're so much healthier yet have so many more chronic conditions?