Illustration from The Seven Wishes

Wishful Thinking About Prevention Savings

More than half of Americans suffer from one or more chronic diseases caused by preventable lifestyle issues. As 75% of healthcare costs in the U.S. come from treating health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, prevention could provide an opportunity for quality-of-life improvements and costs savings. Tami Gustafson questions this assumption in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and asks if it’s just wishful thinking.

Gustafson reviews the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) organization’s recent report, “A Healthier America 2013: Strategies to Move from Sick Care to Health Care in Four Years.” TFAH is a non-partisan health advocacy group dedicated to saving lives by working to make disease prevention a national priority. In this report, the authors recommend prioritizing prevention measures to improve the health of millions of Americans. Their contention is that chronic disease, which accounts for seven out of ten deaths in this country, is often treated or managed instead of prevented. “Prevention delivers real value as a cost-effective way to keep Americans healthy and improve their quality of life,” says Jeffrey Levi, TFAH’s executive director, and he believes prevention will make healthcare costs go down.

The idea that prevention does not reduce costs comes largely from some health economists who claim that there is little evidence that preventive medicine would cost us less than our existing system. They suggest that one of the reasons for this is that medical procedures to prevent illnesses are more or less the same as those applied for treatment, such as physical checkups or cancer tests. When a large number of people are tested for diseases they don’t have, to rule out the possibility of having the diseases,  a lot of money is spent for nothing. Mammography and PSA testing are two examples discussed widely.

Although this consideration is true, prevention as normally thought of, and what is described in the Trust for America’s Health report, is wellness programs or community wellness activities directed at improving health behaviors that prevent disease formation or ameliorate disease. Although not conclusive, considerable research has shown that investments in comprehensive health promotion or wellness programs yield cost savings for employers and for the healthcare system.

Wishful thinking is not all bad. Sometimes it leads to action guided by evidence for what works.

Click here to read more in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and here to learn more about Trust for America’s Health and their report.

Fairy image by John Bauer from The Seven Wishes / Wikimedia