Think preventive medicine will save money? Think again

It seems like a no-brainer.

Since about 75 percent of healthcare spending in the United States is for largely preventable chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, providing more preventive care should cut costs.

If only.

In a report released on Tuesday, the non-profit Trust for America’s Health outlined a plan “to move from sick care to health care” by putting more resources into preventing chronic disease rather than treating it, as the current system does. There is a strong humanitarian justification for prevention, argued Trust Executive Director Jeffrey Levi in an interview, since it reduces human suffering.

But the report also makes an economic argument for preventive care, highlighting the possibility of reducing healthcare spending — which in 2011 reached $2.7 trillion, just shy of 18 percent of gross domestic product — by billions of dollars. And that has health economists shaking their heads.

“Preventive care is more about the right thing to do” because it spares people the misery of illness, said economist Austin Frakt of Boston University. “But it’s not plausible to think you can cut healthcare spending through preventive care. This is widely misunderstood.”

A 2010 study in the journal Health Affairs, for instance, calculated that if 90 percent of the U.S. population used proven preventive services, more than do now, it would save only 0.2 percent of healthcare spending.

(…snip…)

In contrast, unthinking expansion of preventive medicine is the wrong prescription, say experts.

“If you start giving preventive care to more people, many of whom won’t benefit from it, it’s going to be very, very expensive,” said Tufts’ Neumann.

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For more background and many citation links see Al Lewis Caution: Wellness Programs May Be Hazardous to Your Health

The exponential growth in wellness programs indicates that Corporate America believes that medicalizing the workplace, through paying employees to participate in health risk assessments (“HRAs”) and biometric screens, will reduce healthcare spending.

It won’t. As shown in my book Why Nobody Believes the Numbers and subsequentanalyses, the publicly reported outcomes data of these programs are made up—often to a laughable degree, starting with the fictional Safeway wellness success story that inspired the original Affordable Care Act wellness emphasis. None of this should be a surprise: in addition to HRAs and blood draws, wellness programs urge employees to go to the doctor, even though most preventive care costs more than it saves. So workplace medicalization saves no money – indeed, it probably increases direct costs with these extra doctor visits – but all this medicalization at least should make a company’s workforce healthier.

Except when it doesn’t — and harms employees instead, which happens altogether too often.