Note to Politicians: Medical Prevention May Cost More Than Treatment

By Melissa Lafsky | August 25, 2008 1:26 pm

doctorsThroughout the 2008 campaign, both Obama and McCain have been pushing preventative-care programs as a solution to exploding health care costs. Which seems sensible enough given that, from a logic standpoint, it sounds like a flawless cost-saving strategy: We take measures to stamp out diseases and other health problems before they start, and save ourselves the costs (both in care and increasingly precious doctor hours) of treating them later.

The only problem is that preventative care may not save money at all. A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine found that rather than cutting costs, preventative-care plans often wind up costing more than treatment. Written by Tufts health-policy researchers Joshua Cohen and Peter Neumann and Harvard professor of health policy Milton Weinstein, the paper declares that “[s]weeping statements about the cost-saving potential of prevention … are overreaching” since “[s]tudies have concluded that preventing illness can in some cases save money but in other cases can add to health care costs.”

The authors analyzed the contents of the Tufts–New England Medical Center Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Registry, specifically looking at 599 articles (and 1500 ratios) published between 2000 and 2005. As this graph of their results shows, the results are mixed—when it comes down to it, only 19 percent of preventative measures save money. Of the money-losers, some are still worth doing—they offer substantial health benefits relative to cost. Others—like prostate cancer screening—not only cost more but are inefficient, since the available treatment can nip the disease in the bud quickly and at low cost.

One example of preventative care that does both save money and increase overall health, according to the authors, is the recommended schedule of child immunizations. Since, as we’ve discussed before, neglecting (or refusing) to innoculate against preventable diseases is only going to increase costs (and risks) down the line.

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Comments (176)

  1. Chris Fernandez

    I agree that promoting preventative care the way we have in the past would save any money. Setting it up entirely through the government would be extreamly costly. The government would be better off using the money to promote a healthy lifestyle, and allowing business the opportunity to make preventative care less expensive. I am now part owner in a company that has already accomplished this. I work for a healthy prepared meals store.
    Most concepts like our own, require you to pre-order. Our store has a huge cooler, with the meals always stocked. Why is this important? Conveniance!
    I have learned that if you make healthy food conveniant, that not only are people more receptive to it, but they make it a part of their lifestyle. Healthy food is in fact less expensive. Fruits, vegetables, and healthy grains are inexpensive. Not only do we make healthy food conveniant, but we also provide free consultations for those who want or need.
    Most of our customers that come in for health problems end up saving money.
    Many of those coming in were eating out a lot already. On top of that people waste groceries all the time. Our meals are only a couple dollars more than you would spend at a fast food joint. If businesses create healthy opportunities for the consumer it will most deffinatilly work. Its working in communities all over houston right now. People come back to me and tell me about the mooney they are saving because they no longer need insulin shots. With business like this, and the government promoting responsible healthy living; I do not see this idea failing.

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