Conference Coverage

Sickle cell disease exacts a heavy vocational toll


Key clinical point: Sickle cell patients reported missing work or being affected by their symptoms while working.

Major finding: Three-quarters of patients reported missing work in the last year because of SCD symptoms. This group reported missing a mean 37 days yearly.

Study details: Single-site survey-based study of 186 adults with SCD.

Disclosures: Pfizer sponsored the study. Mr. Vendetti is employed by Pfizer and holds Pfizer stock. A study coauthor is a Pfizer consultant.



– Three-quarters of patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) reported missing work in the last year because of disease symptoms, according to results from a single-center study.

While the direct costs of SCD are easy to measure, it’s harder to capture the indirect costs patients may incur from this chronic, progressive disease, which range from lost days at work to the downstream consequences of “presenteeism.”

“Indirect costs are related to things that have value, but it’s a little bit harder to apply an exact value to it,” said Nicholas Vendetti of Pfizer. But this is a critical piece for understanding SCD, he said. “The burden of illness is unknown without productivity costs.”

Mr. Vendetti and his collaborators attempted to capture the indirect costs of SCD, and reported the results of a single-site study at the annual meeting of the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research.

They recruited patients from Virginia Commonwealth University’s adult sickle cell clinic and trained interviewers to conduct structured interviews using the Institute for Medical Technology Assessment Productivity Cost Questionnaire. The interviewers asked about absenteeism, lost work, unpaid work activity, and “presenteeism,” defined as days when participants were at work but experienced decreased work output because of disease symptoms.

In the end, the study enrolled 186 patients aged 18 and older, a figure that “really exceeded what we expected when we started the protocol,” Mr. Vendetti said. Most participants were between the ages of 20 and 60 years – the most productive working years.

About 58% of participants were female. Nearly half (46%) had the HbSS genotype, while 30% had the HbSC genotype. About half (52%) were high school graduates, and about a third had some college. There were no advanced degrees earned in the study population, and 11.5% had not finished high school.

Initial questions about educational status and employment status “highlighted a very interesting aspect of the disease: 43.8% reported that they were currently unable to work as part of their disease process,” Mr. Vendetti said. Just 28% were employed for wages, 3% were self-employed, and about 7% reported being homemakers. The remainder were out of work, were students, or were retired.

Three-quarters of patients reported missing work in the last year because of SCD symptoms. This group reported missing a mean 36.75 days yearly. Assuming the average Virginia hourly wage of $25.53 per hour, this comes to an average of $7,506 in lost wages each year, Mr. Vendetti said.

Presenteeism had a large impact as well. Nearly 73% of patients said they were bothered at work – either psychologically or physically – by their symptoms in the last 4 weeks, and 90% over the past year. These patients estimated they were affected for about 100 working days yearly.

When asked on a scale of 0-10 how much work they were able to get done on days when their SCD was affecting productivity, “most patients are falling into that middle range” of a score of 4-6, Mr. Vendetti said. “Most patients are moderately affected.

“It’s hard to apply a dollar value to that, but it’s easy to see how it could affect the trajectory of your career,” he added.

Another aspect of the indirect cost of the sickle cell disease burden that’s even harder to tease out is whether those affected are unable to complete a significant amount of unpaid work. Again, about three-quarters of patients reported that SCD had affected their ability to do this kind of work, and these patients said this happened on an average 105 days each year.

Even though patients may not be hiring others to do housework they’re unable to complete, or to care for children on days when they’re too unwell to do so, that doesn’t mean there’s no impact on the patient and those around them, Mr. Vendetti said. “If you ask a family member or a friend for help, that creates a strain in the relationship.”

In terms of resources to address the indirect burden of SCD on careers, Mr. Vendetti pointed out that many states have vocational rehabilitation programs that offer a significant amount of support and assistance to help find a productive work path that still accommodates a chronic illness such as SCD. In Virginia, he said, individuals need to be on disability to avail themselves of the program.

Health care providers can educate themselves about these and other programs. “Most adult sickle cell disease patients didn’t even know they might be eligible” for vocational assistance, he said.

During discussion after the presentation, an audience member pointed out that parents and caregivers of children with SCD are probably also incurring significant indirect costs because of their care-giving burden and that this population should also be studied. Mr. Vendetti agreed. “This is potential that isn’t fulfilled” for all patients and families whose work and personal lives are so profoundly affected by SCD, he said. “This is a dream deferred.”

Mr. Vendetti is employed by Pfizer and is a Pfizer stockholder. A coauthor of the study is a Pfizer consultant.

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