Four years ago at age 78, R., a retired professional known as much for her small-town Minnesotan resilience as her commitment to public service, developed a fleeting rash over her left chest. The rash, which turned out to be shingles, or herpes zoster, was hardly noticeable.
But the complications were unforgettable.
For close to a year afterward, R. wrestled with the searing and relentless pain in the area where the rash had been. "It was ghastly, the worst possible pain anyone could have," R. said recently, recalling the sleepless nights and fruitless search for relief. "I've had babies and that hurts a lot, but at least it goes away. This pain never let up. I felt like I was losing my mind for just a few minutes of peace."
Shingles and its painful complication, called postherpetic neuralgia, result from reactivation of the chicken pox virus, which remains in the body after a childhood bout and is usually dormant in the adult. Up to a third of all adults who have had chicken pox will eventually develop one or both of these conditions, becoming debilitated for anywhere from a week to several years. That percentage translates into about one million Americans affected each year, with older adults, whose immune systems are less robust, being most vulnerable. Once the rash and its painful sequel appear, treatment options are limited at best and carry their own set of complications.
While the search for relief costs Americans over $500 million each year, the worst news until recently has been that shingles and its painful complication could happen to any one of us. There were no preventive measures available.
But in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new vaccine against shingles. Clinical trials on the vaccine revealed that it could, with relatively few side effects, reduce the risk of developing shingles by more than half and the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia by over two-thirds. In 2008, a national panel of experts on immunizations at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went on to recommend the vaccine to all adults age 60 and older.
At the time, the shingles vaccine seemed to embody the best of medicine, both old school and new. Its advent was contemporary medicine's elegant response to a once intractable, age-old problem. It didn't necessarily put an end to the spread of disease, in this case chicken pox; but it dramatically reduced the burden of illness for the affected individual. And, most notably, its utter simplicity was a metaphoric shot-in-the-arm for old-fashioned doctoring values. Among the increasingly complex and convoluted suggestions for health care reform that were brewing at that moment, here was a powerful intervention that relied on only three things: a needle, a syringe and a patient-doctor relationship rooted in promoting wellness.
In the two years since the vaccine became available, fewer than 10 percent of all eligible patients have received it. Despite the best intentions of patients and doctors (and no shortage of needles and syringes), the shingles vaccine has failed to take hold, in large part because of the most modern of obstacles. What should have been a widely successful and simple wellness intervention between doctors and their patients became a 21st century Rube Goldberg-esque nightmare.
Last month in The Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers from the University of Colorado in Denver and the C.D.C. surveyed almost 600 primary care physicians and found that fewer than half strongly recommended the shingles vaccine. Doctors were not worried about safety — a report in the same issue of the journal confirmed that the vaccine has few side effects; rather, they were concerned about patient cost.
Although only one dose is required, the vaccination costs $160 to $195 per dose, 10 times more than other commonly prescribed adult vaccines; and insurance carriers vary in the amount they will cover. Thus, while the overwhelming majority of doctors in the study did not hesitate to strongly recommend immunizations against influenza and pneumonia, they could not do the same with the shingles vaccine.
"It's just a shot, not a pap smear or a colonoscopy," said Dr. Laura P. Hurley, lead author and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. "But the fact is that it is an expensive burden for all patients, even those with private insurance and Medicare because it is not always fully reimbursed."
Moreover, many private insurers require patients to pay out of pocket first and apply for reimbursement afterward. And because the shingles vaccine is the only vaccine more commonly given to seniors that has been treated as a prescription drug, eligible Medicare patients must also first pay out of pocket then submit the necessary paperwork in order to receive the vaccine in their doctor's office. It's a complicated reimbursement process that stands in stark contrast to the automatic, seamless and fully covered one that Medicare has for flu and pneumonia vaccines.
Despite this payment maze, some physicians have tried to stock and administer the vaccine in their offices; many, however, eventually stop because they can no longer afford to provide the immunizations. "If you have one out of 10 people who doesn't pay for the vaccine, your office loses money," said Dr. Allan Crimm, the managing partner of Ninth Street Internal Medicine, a primary care practice in Philadelphia. Over time, Dr. Crimm's practice lost thousands of dollars on the shingles vaccine. "It's indicative of how there are perverse incentives that make it difficult to accomplish what everybody agrees should happen."