A recent study by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America placed Memphis No. 3 on a list of the most challenging places in the U.S. to live in with the chronic disease. In 2012, Memphis ranked No. 1.
The study found that asthma sufferers are affected not only by air pollution but by other factors like pollen, secondhand smoke, high rates of poverty and a large uninsured population, which are all contributing factors to frequent and expensive emergency room visits.
“Environmental quality makes a huge difference for people living with asthma,” said Lynn Hanessian, chair of AAFA’s national board of directors. “Cities that continually fail to pass smoking bans are falling behind the curve, as well as cities with higher rates of poverty and uninsured families.”
Memphis residents also have high rates of other chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis and heart disease. Minorities in Memphis also face greater health disparities in treatment and access to care, outcomes and mortality than elsewhere in the U.S. for many of these same diseases.
The AAFA study assesses asthma prevalence, environmental risk factors and patient medical utilization in the largest 100 U.S. cities. The foundation hopes to highlight the many factors that contribute to asthma quality of life and to help patients, doctors and policymakers make informed decisions about prevention, treatment and public policies that affect asthma sufferers.
About 22 million U.S. residents suffer from asthma. While some factors that affect asthma can’t be controlled, such as pollen, others, like reducing poverty, enacting universal smoking bans and increasing access to care, can reduce emergency room visits and better control the chronic disease.
An estimated 5 to 10 percent of asthma sufferers have the most severe form of asthma and do not respond to conventional treatment. People with severe asthma are more likely to have frequent attacks, visit emergency rooms and to be hospitalized frequently.
“Asthma accounts for approximately 13 million asthma attacks and 2 million ER visits each year in the U.S.,” said Dr. Michael Wechsler, director of the Asthma Program at the National Jewish Center in Denver. “500,000 of them result in hospitalizations, so this is a major problem because it costs patients and the health care system too much to care for asthma this way.”
Experts said cities with a higher number of ER visits and hospitalizations show that asthma in the community is less controlled than in other places.
Memphis leaders like Gary Shorb, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, have said policy leaders and health care organizations in Memphis and across the nation need to find new solutions to bring down the cost of providing care and better managing chronic conditions to keep people out of the hospital.
Many patients with asthma and other chronic conditions don’t have access to medications and other types of disease management support needed to prevent frequent hospital visits and complications.
In recent years, ER data was not included in the study because it was not available in a consistent way to ensure researchers could compare data between cities.
“Higher numbers of ER visits and hospitalizations in one city over another is an indication that there’s a problem,” said Mike Tringale, AAFA vice president of external affairs. “It’s a sign that asthma in that community is less controlled than in other places, or that environmental triggers are worse, or that patients are not using their medications properly, or that emergency rooms are clogged with too many asthma patients. … It’s a sign that asthma is more challenging to control in that city.”