An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth … What?

An article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine should be read by everyone who has ever believed that “investing” in preventive care would save money. After reviewing the evidence, the authors write:

Sweeping statements about the cost-saving potential of prevention … are overreaching. Studies have concluded that preventing illness can in some cases save money but in other cases can add to health care costs …

Our findings suggest that the broad generalizations made by many presidential candidates can be misleading. These statements convey the message that substantial resources can be saved through prevention. Although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not. Careful analysis of the costs and benefits of specific interventions, rather than broad generalizations, is critical.

The authors also note that actual (non-preventive) medical treatments often buy as much health for the money as preventive care.