Are New Jerseyans getting sicker? Hospital report shows spike in chronic conditions - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Are New Jerseyans getting sicker? Hospital report shows spike in chronic conditions

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By Scot Fallon

January 8, 2024

More New Jerseyans are developing a cornucopia of underlying medical conditions — from asthma and hypertension to COPD and diabetes — that lead to serious illnesses requiring hospitalization, a new report shows.

Almost a third of patients admitted to a New Jersey hospital in 2022 had eight or more chronic conditions — an increase from about 25% in 2016, according to a study by the New Jersey Hospital Association.

“What we’re finding is a consistent trend in the wrong direction,” said Sean Hopkins, an association vice president who oversaw development of the report. “It’s clear that hospitals are treating a population that is increasingly sicker than before.”

The report comes with hospitals already stressed due to more severely ill patients coupled with a staffing shortage — two byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of patients with illnesses classified as “major or extreme” increased by 21% between 2019 and 2022, a report last year showed. At the same time, about 30% of New Jersey nurses have left the profession.

NJ care teams challenged like never before

New Jersey is often ranked high in health care nationally, “but our care teams are challenged like never before caring for patients whose needs are incredibly complex,” said Cathy Bennett, president and CEO of the hospital association.

Nurses say they’re overworked and have pushed for a law to establish mandatory staff-to-patient ratios, but hospitals have opposed the measure, saying staffing flexibility is needed to provide care. The two sides squared off at a Senate health committee hearing on the bill (S304) in Trenton on Thursday.

“Recruitment efforts are needed, yes, but recruitment alone cannot fix this problem,” Debbie White, president of HPAE, the largest health care workers union in New Jersey, told the committee. “We must address retention. Otherwise, it’s as if we are trying to fill a bucket full of holes with water.”

Patients with eight or more underlying conditions develop serious problems that lead to hospitalization. The five most common underlying conditions in New Jersey are sepsis, heart failure, respiratory infection, heart attack and pneumonia, the report said.

Living longer but developing more health issues

Age is playing a major role, with those 65 and older representing 57% of patients with eight or more chronic conditions. Like most Americans, New Jerseyans are living longer and developing more health issues that are slow in progression, long in duration and often managed by maintenance medication.

Eating healthy, exercising and other preventive measures like sleep and community interaction help reduce the risk of some of the most prevalent chronic conditions seen in New Jersey, including obesity, high cholesterol and depression, said Hopkins, of the hospital association.

The problem is expected to get worse as New Jersey faces a tsunami of older residents in the coming years and decades.

The number of residents over 60 is expected to increase by 1 million this decade when the tail end of the baby boomer generation become senior citizens, said a report by the state Division of Aging Services. That would put 3 million New Jerseyans over the age of 60 by 2030 — outpacing the percentage of school-age children for the first time in the state’s history.

New Jersey is not alone in facing this issue. Those with multiple chronic conditions are projected to almost double nationally, from 7.8 million in 2020 to 14.9 million in 2050, said a report published last year.

“It’s clearly risen to the level of being a public health issue,” Hopkins said. “We just didn’t really know the magnitude.”

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