Public health and the U.S. economy

2 min read

With the November 2012 elections on the horizon, Americans surveyed in national polls consistently rank the economy as their number one concern. Public health professionals can have a big impact on this ballot-box issue. More than 17 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is spent on health care—in many cases, for conditions that could be prevented or better managed with public health interventions. Yet only 3 percent of the government’s health budget is spent on public health measures. A 2012 study in Health Affairs notes that since 1960, U.S. health care spending has grown five times faster than GDP.

Why do these numbers matter?

First, a healthier workforce is a more productive workforce. According to an April 2012 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the indirect costs associated with preventable chronic diseases—costs related to worker productivity as well as the resulting fiscal drag on the nation’s economic output—may exceed $1 trillion per year. A 2007 study from the Milken Institute found that when unhealthy workers show up on the job, as many must to survive financially, the effects of their lower productivity on the nation’s economic health are immense: in dollar value, several times greater than the business losses accrued when employees take actual sick days. Avoidable illness also diverts the economic productivity of parents and other caregivers.

Second, the costs of health care are built into the price of every American-built product and service. And the per capita cost of health care in the U.S. is higher than in any nation in the world.