Kids' Food Allergy Care Costs Add Up

Food allergies among children cost more than 20 billion dollars a year in the US

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Having a child with a medical condition can often take an emotional toll on families. Yet these medical conditions can also take a significant financial toll as well.

A recent study found that the costs of caring for children with food allergies total several billion dollars each year in the US.

Only a small amount of this overall cost was related to direct medical costs like clinic or ER visits.

The biggest share of the money related to lost opportunities for parents to earn money, such as needing to change jobs.

Additional costs came from out-of-pocket purchases, including having to buy special foods for the children.

"Ask your doctor for suggestions on managing food allergies cost-effectively."

This study, led by Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, of the Smith Child Health Research Program at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, looked at how much childhood food allergies financially cost in the US.

The researchers interviewed 1,643 US parents or guardians who had a child with a current food allergy.

The children's caregivers were asked to add up how much money their child's allergy and allergy management had cost them.

The costs could include direct medical costs, out-of-pocket costs (such as for tissues or allergy medications), lost work time and any other related costs that would not have existed if not for the allergy. For example, if a parent had to turn down an opportunity to make extra money, or if a family trip that had been paid for had to be cancelled, those costs would be included.

The researchers then took these responses and calculated the overall costs of children's food allergies across the US, taking into account how many children have food allergies.

The total figure they calculated was $24.8 billion each year that children's food allergies cost.

Of this figure, $4.3 billion was spent on direct medical costs that included doctor visits, going to the emergency room and hospitalizations.

The amount the families lost unrelated to direct medical costs was the biggest share of the money — $20.5 billion each year.

This lost money included lost work wages and productivity, out-of-pocket costs and any other missed opportunities to have saved or earned money.

The lost work time and productivity totaled about $770 million ($0.77 billion) each year.

Just under a third of the $5.5 billion spent on out-of-pocket costs included the cost of purchasing special foods for the children.

"Other unique out-of-pocket costs are incurred to avoid unintentional exposure to food allergens, including special childcare arrangements ($857 million), changing schools ($650 million) and attending special summer camps ($125 million)," the researchers wrote.

The largest single chunk of the cost was the $14.2 billion of lost "opportunity" cost each year, primarily stemming from parents or guardians having to leave their job or change jobs due to their child's allergy.

"Childhood food allergy in the United States places a considerable economic burden on families and society," the researchers wrote.

"Results from this study reveal significant direct medical costs to the US health care system and even larger costs to families with a food-allergic child," they wrote. "Given these findings, research to develop an effective food allergy treatment and cure is critically needed."

The researchers added that the costs related to childhood food allergies differ from the way costs add up for many other childhood conditions.

"Moreover, unlike other common childhood diseases in which most costs are borne by the healthcare system, childhood food allergy disproportionately burdens family finances," the researchers wrote.

"Ultimately, to reduce the economic effect on families due to lost opportunity, additional policies to ensure safe environments and to provide health insurance coverage of special needs for food-allergic children are essential," they wrote.

Adam Powell, a health economist and President of Payer+Provider Syndicate, said the study has important implications for managing the costs of chronic medical conditions.

"This study demonstrates that some medical issues, such as food allergies, can generate large indirect costs which we do not traditionally include in our measures of healthcare spending," Powell said. "These costs are important to acknowledge, as in some cases, interventions that decrease the costs borne by the healthcare system actually increase societal spending."

Powell said the study's results show that caregivers' willingness to pay for food allergy treatment is similar to the out-of-pocket costs that caregivers face in providing assistance to those with allergies

"This suggests that caregivers are well-aware of the costs that they face as a result of allergies, and that a market exists for products and services that can cost-effectively decrease caregivers' expenditures," Powell said.

"As the majority of the cost of food allergies appears to result from caregivers' lost wages, the biggest opportunity for reducing the cost of food allergies revolves around simplifying the lives of caregivers, rather than changing the lives of the actual patients," he said.

This study was published September 16 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The research was funded by Food Allergy Research Education. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 16, 2013
Last Updated:
September 24, 2013