How a $50 Blood Pressure Monitor Could Help Save Thousands in Medical Bills
Here’s why testing your blood pressure at home with a monitor from the drugstore could save you money — and your life.
A tough reality: Someone in the United States dies of heart disease every 34 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 697,000 people every year, or 1 out of every 5 deaths. Heart disease can cost you in other ways too. For instance, people with heart failure, a serious heart condition, spend an average of almost $25,000 a year on treatment.
“One of the causes of heart disease, strokes, and kidney failure is high blood pressure,” says Mohammed Imam, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Staten Island Hospital in New York City. In fact, he calls high blood pressure the common denominator in all of these life-threatening conditions.
Why high blood pressure is dangerous
Blood pressure is the force of blood as it is pumped out from the heart and pushes against the walls of the veins carrying blood to the body. When the force of blood is always high, your heart has to work harder. Over time, all that extra work damages blood vessels and raises the risk of heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes, among other things.
What do blood pressure numbers mean?
Your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers. Systolic blood pressure (the first or top number) is how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure (the second or bottom number) is how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.
You have high blood pressure (known as hypertension) when readings are regularly higher than 130/90. About half of all Americans have hypertension, and only a quarter of them have it under control. Normal blood pressure is typically 120/80. Low blood pressure is when readings are lower than 90/60. Most doctors consider low blood pressure to be a problem only if it causes symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, fainting, or dehydration.
High blood pressure doesn’t have any real symptoms. That’s why it’s called the silent killer. So keeping your blood pressure normal is important for preventing heart disease — and saving you money in long-term medical bills.
The benefits of testing your blood pressure at home
Believe it or not, you have an important role in monitoring your blood pressure. Of course, your primary care doctor takes your blood pressure when you go in for checkups. Those numbers may not be accurate, though, either reading too high or too low. In fact, says Dr. Imam, “the most accurate way to monitor blood pressure is by doing it yourself at home. And that’s why you need to have a blood pressure cuff at home.”
Studies back him up. In one, researchers found that at-home blood pressure monitoring was better at diagnosing hypertension than the tests done by medical pros. That’s according to the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Another study found that at-home monitors were better at detecting a specific type of heart problem known as left ventricular hypertrophy, or LVH, in Black Americans.
There are a few reasons you get more exact numbers at home. First, your blood pressure changes throughout the day, says Jennifer L. Wong, M.D. She’s a cardiologist and Medical Director of Noninvasive Cardiology at Orange Coast Medical Center’s MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute in Fountain Valley, California. And when you take it at home, you can check it at different times of day.
At home, you can also relax before taking your blood pressure. And you can take it a few times in one sitting, Dr. Wong says.
So who should be testing themselves regularly? Well, if you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, you obviously need to check it, preferably every day. That’s a good way for your doctor to know if your blood pressure medications are working. But even if you haven’t been diagnosed, you need to check it routinely if you have these risk factors for heart disease, says Dr. Wong:
- A family history of heart disease at a young age
- High cholesterol
If your doctor orders more testing for any condition, there are tools that can help you find out where to get it done at the lowest cost. Check out Fair Health Consumer or Clear Health Costs to start searching.
How to take your blood pressure correctly
The American Heart Association recommends using an automatic, upper-arm cuff monitor. They tend to be more precise than wrist monitors. You don’t have to spend much either. “Most decent blood pressure cuffs range from $30 to $60,” Dr. Wong notes.
Then use it to check your blood pressure every morning and evening. If that’s not practical, Dr. Wong recommends taking it a few times a week, sometimes in the a.m., other times in the p.m. Keep track of when you took your reading and the numbers.
Here’s what else to do, suggests Dr. Wong:
- Wait 30 minutes after you’ve exercised, had coffee, or drunk alcohol. All three can elevate blood pressure.
- Go to the bathroom so your bladder is empty (having a full bladder puts pressure on the kidneys, which can increase blood pressure).
- Sit up, with both feet on the ground and your arm on a table, so that it’s level with your heart.
- Relax by waiting 5 minutes before taking the reading (breathe!).
- If you have time, take 2 or 3 readings and average the results.
Then look for trends. If your numbers are consistently high, let the doctor know before the next checkup. Your provider might have to adjust your medications (or start you on them). You’ll also need to make lifestyle changes, such as exercising more and eating healthier.
Last but not least, bring your at-home monitor to the doctor’s office at least once a year so that the staff can check it against their machines, Dr. Wong advises. That way, you’ll know you’re getting the right numbers.
If your doctor ultimately puts you on medication for high blood pressure, read this to save: Want to spend less on prescription medication? Here’s how.
Heart disease stats: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Accuracy of at-home testing: Journal of General Internal Medicine (2022). “Clinic, Home and Kiosk Blood Pressure Measurements for Diagnosing Hypertension: A Randomized Diagnostic Study”
How to take your own blood pressure: American Heart Association