When prevention is not better than cure 0

Charles Krauthammer writes:

Think of it this way. Assume that a screening test for disease X costs $500 and finding it early averts $10,000 of costly treatment at a later stage. Are you saving money? Well, if one in 10 of those who are screened tests positive, society is saving $5,000. But if only one in 100 would get that disease, society is shelling out $40,000 more than it would without the preventive care.

That’s a hypothetical case. What’s the real-life actuality in the United States today? A study in the journal Circulation found that for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, “if all the recommended prevention activities were applied with 100 percent success,” the prevention would cost almost 10 times as much as the savings, increasing the country’s total medical bill by 162 percent. Elmendorf additionally cites a definitive assessment in the New England Journal of Medicine that reviewed hundreds of studies on preventive care and found that more than 80 percent of preventive measures added to medical costs.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be preventing illness. Of course we should. But in medicine, as in life, there is no free lunch. The idea that prevention is somehow intrinsically economically different from treatment — that treatment increases costs and prevention lowers them — is simply nonsense.

Prevention is a wondrous good, but in the aggregate it costs society money. Nothing wrong with that. That’s the whole premise of medicine: Treating a heart attack or setting a broken leg also costs society. But we do it because it alleviates human suffering. Preventing a heart attack with statins or breast cancer with mammograms is costly. But we do it because it reduces human suffering.

However, prevention is not, as so widely advertised, healing on the cheap. It is not the magic bullet for health care costs.

You will hear some variation of that claim a hundred times in the coming health care debate. Whenever you do, remember: It’s nonsense — empirically demonstrable and CBO-certified.

Posted under Commentary, Conservatism, Economics, Health, Socialism, United States by Jillian Becker on Friday, August 14, 2009

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