Want to bend the health care cost curve? Take your meds.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Pennsylvania-based insurer/health system Geisinger will be collaborating with Merck to improve patient compliance (i.e., helping patients take their meds as and when prescribed by their doctors).

Why does anyone care if John or Jane Doe - let's say a diabetic with high cholesterol and high blood pressure - remembers to take his or her medicines?

Patient non-compliance with prescribed treatments can lead to expensive and costly health care complications, driving up the nation's health care tab. A 2009 study by NEHI found that one third to one half of all patients in the United States do not adhere to the prescription drug regimens that their doctors prescribe for them. These figures are even higher for patients who suffer from chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes; one Medco study suggested that for the least compliant patients with diabetes, $1 of spending on medications could save $7 in medical costs down the road.

Drug makers and insurance providers, of course, have their own reasons for attempting to improve patient compliance. Patients who adhere to their prescribed drug regimens will refill their prescriptions more often than those who don't, providing pharmaceutical companies like Merck increased revenues. And patients who take their prescribed medications on schedule impose fewer costs in the long run on insurance providers like Geisinger than those who don't.

If it pans out, the biggest winners from this collaboration will be patients. Drugs for chronic illnesses offer patients significant health benefits, but those benefits can only be realized if patients actually use them as prescribed.

Good health may be priceless, but from another perspective, it's actually pretty cheap. Or at least much cheaper than the alternative.

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