Bipolar disorder is a chronic affective disorder that causes significant economic burden to patients, families and society. It has a lifetime prevalence of approximately 1.3%. Bipolar disorder is characterised by recurrent mania or hypomania and depressive episodes that cause impairments in functioning and health-related quality of life. Patients require acute and maintenance therapy delivered via inpatient and outpatient treatment. Patients with bipolar disorder often have contact with the social welfare and legal systems; bipolar disorder impairs occupational functioning and may lead to premature mortality through suicide. This review examines the symptomatology of bipolar disorder and identifies those features that make it difficult and costly to treat. Methods for assessing direct and indirect costs are reviewed. We report on comprehensive cost studies as well as administrative claims data and program evaluations. The majority of data is drawn from studies conducted in the US; however, we discuss European studies when appropriate. Only two comprehensive cost-of-illness studies on bipolar disorder, one prevalence-based and one incidence-based, have been reported. There are, however, several comprehensive cost-of-illness studies measuring economic burden of affective disorders including bipolar disorder. Estimates of total costs of affective disorders in the US range from $US30.4-43.7 billion (1990 values). In the prevalence-based cost-of-illness study on bipolar disorder, total annual costs were estimated at $US45.2 billion (1991 values). In the incidence-based study, lifetime costs were estimated at $US24 billion. Although there have been recent advances in pharmacotherapy and outpatient therapy, hospitalisation still accounts for a substantial portion of the direct costs. A variety of outpatient services are increasingly important for the care of patients with bipolar disorder and costs in this area continue to grow. Indirect costs due to morbidity and premature mortality comprise a large portion of the cost of illness. Lost workdays or inability to work due to the disease cause high morbidity costs. Intangible costs such as family burden and impaired health-related quality of life are common, although it has proved difficult to attach monetary values to these costs.
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