NKF and OptumLabs Call for Changes to Improve Kidney Health

Organizations share viewpoint to change outcomes for patients with kidney disease, increase awareness

September 7, 2021, New York, NY — The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and OptumLabs published today a list of recommendations designed to improve kidney health and kidney disease care in this country.

“Shared Viewpoint – Developing the Future of Kidney Care,” published today in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM), points to four overall priorities that, if implemented, could reduce the number of Americans living with chronic kidney disease (CKD), improve care for patients, reduce cardiovascular hospitalizations, prevent or delay kidney failure, and contain the $120 billion of public funds spent on kidney disease in the U.S. each year.

Kidney disease affects an estimated 37 million people in the U.S., (or more than 1 in 7 adults), and approximately 90% don't know they have it. Kidney disease is one of the leading causes of death among adults in America and is often called a “silent” disease because it has few symptoms until the final, more severe stages.

“Lack of awareness and underdiagnosis of kidney disease leaves patients, families and the healthcare system blind to a huge population’s future risk of cardiovascular events, reduced quality of life, potential kidney failure, and death,” said NKF Chief Medical Officer Joseph Vassalotti, MD. “Changing this reality will require principles and solutions that get upstream of this inadequately-treated disease.”

The authors list the following priorities:

  • Improve screening, diagnosis, and documentation of kidney disease;
  • Improve engagement with patients and focus on person-centered kidney care;
  • Move Medicare reimbursements upstream leading to earlier interventions; and
  • Increase access to evidence-based therapies for patients with CKD.

Risk factors that can lead to kidney disease, such as obesity and age, are rising in the U.S. and suggest that the number of adults with kidney disease will grow. Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic was both devastating to current patients with kidney disease and created new patients with virus-related acute kidney injury.        

Both NKF and OptumLabs have projects to move these priorities forward and are collaborating to make these innovations have a greater impact than the individual organizations could do alone. For example, NKF rolled out in 2020 the “Are You the 33%?®” awareness campaign, reaching millions of people who took our survey to help them identify their risk for  kidney disease. OptumLabs included the survey on their website, which helped increase its reach. In addition, the NKF Patient Network, launched in February of this year, is the only kidney disease registry that has both patient-entered data and electronic health records. Patients with all stages of kidney disease can register and add their important health information. This powerful research tool will improve the lives of people living with kidney diseases by better informing research, clinical care, drug development, and health policy decisions, as well as give kidney patients the tools they need to stay educated and healthy. 

OptumLabs is working to research gaps in care that affect kidney health and designing programs that leverage data and analytics to help identify and treat people suffering from kidney disease earlier, including one, launching this fall, which will use a risk stratification model to identify and offer at-home testing for kidney disease to UnitedHealthcare members as part of a pilot program.

“Identifying these priorities is the first step to a much better future in the kidney community,” Dr. Vassalotti said. “Most importantly, every person will know the status of their kidney health and risk as early as possible, which is critical in preventing adverse outcomes.”          

“Kidney disease affects millions of people and it will take new approaches, collaborations, and ways of thinking to make meaningful progress against it,” said David Cook, MD, Chief Medical Officer of OptumLabs, and NKF board member. “At OptumLabs we’re focused on improving lives and we’re honored to be in this fight alongside partners like National Kidney Foundation.”

The authors of the paper are Dr. Vassalotti, Clarissa Jonas Diamantidis, MD, of Duke University School of Medicine, and Dr. Cook.

Kidney Disease Facts

In the United States, 37 million adults are estimated to have chronic kidney disease (CKD)—and approximately 90 percent don’t know they have it.  1 in 3 adults in the U.S. is at risk for chronic kidney disease.  Risk factors for kidney disease include: diabeteshigh blood pressureheart diseaseobesity, and family history. People who are Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian American, or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander are at increased risk for developing the disease. Black or African American people are almost 4 times more likely than Whites to have kidney failure. Hispanic or Latino people are 1.3 times more likely than non-Hispanic or non-Latino people to have kidney failure.

Approximately 785,000 Americans have irreversible kidney failure and need dialysis or a kidney transplant to survive. More than 550,000 of these patients receive dialysis to replace kidney function and 230,000 live with a transplant. Nearly 100,000 Americans are on the waitlist for a kidney transplant right now. Depending on where a patient lives, the average wait time for a kidney transplant can be upwards of three to seven years. 

About the National Kidney Foundation

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) is the largest, most comprehensive, and longstanding patient-centric organization dedicated to the awareness, prevention, and treatment of kidney disease in the U.S. For more information about NKF, visit www.kidney.org

About OptumLabs

OptumLabs, the research and development arm of UnitedHealth Group, is a diverse team of experts in the fields of research science, clinical research, data analytics, data science and technology, working to address health care’s biggest challenges. As we work toward a health care system that is equitable, integrated, personalized, and affordable for everyone, we partner leaders in clinical care, academic research, and the health care and technology sectors.