Does Preventive Care Save Money? Health Economics and the Presidential Candidates

With health care once again a leading issue in a presidential race, candidates have offered plans for controlling spiraling costs while enhancing the quality of care. A popular component of such plans involves greater promotion of preventive health measures. The first element in Hillary Clinton’s plan is to “focus on prevention: wellness not sickness.” John Edwards has stated that “study after study shows that primary and preventive care greatly reduces future health care costs, as well as increasing patients’ health.” Mike Huckabee has said that a focus on prevention “would save countless lives, pain and suffering by the victims of chronic conditions, and billions of dollars.” Barack Obama has argued that “too little is spent on prevention and public health.” Indeed, some evidence does suggest that there are opportunities to save money and improve health through prevention. Preventable causes of death, such as tobacco smoking, poor diet and physical inactivity, and misuse of alcohol have been estimated to be responsible for 900,000 deaths annually — nearly 40% of total yearly mortality in the United States.1 Moreover, some of the measures identified by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, such as counseling adults to quit smoking, screening for colorectal cancer, and providing influenza vaccination, reduce mortality either at low cost or at a cost savings.2

Sweeping statements about the cost-saving potential of prevention, however, are overreaching. Studies have concluded that preventing illness can in some cases save money but in other cases can add to health care costs.3 For example, screening costs will exceed the savings from avoided treatment in cases in which only a very small fraction of the population would have become ill in the absence of preventive measures. Preventive measures that do not save money may or may not represent cost-effective care (i.e., good value for the resources expended). Whether any preventive measure saves money or is a reasonable investment despite adding to costs depends entirely on the particular intervention and the specific population in question. For example, drugs used to treat high cholesterol yield much greater value for the money if the targeted population is at high risk for coronary heart disease, and the efficiency of cancer screening can depend heavily on both the frequency of the screening and the level of cancer risk in the screened population.4

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