Disease Prevention Called a Better Bet

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

An ounce of prevention in community health programs could save states hundreds of millions in health-care costs, a new study has found.

The report from the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit health advocacy group, found that programs encouraging physical activity, healthy eating and no smoking were a better investment than those concentrating primarily on treatment.

The results are laid out in a state-by-state breakdown.The District, the researchers found, would save $9.90 for every dollar invested, or $57 million over five years. Maryland would save $6 for every dollar, for $332 million over five years, and Virginia would save $385 million -- $5.20 for every dollar spent.

The researchers arrived at their numbers by calculating potential decreases in several chronic diseases based on a $10 investment per person. They found that community health programs could reduce rates of diabetes and high blood pressure by 5 percent within two years and reduce the incidence of some forms of cancer and arthritis within 10 to 20 years.

"We've got to change the mindset from treating sick people to preventing illnesses in the first place," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, who was scheduled to speak yesterday at an event marking the report's release.

The report, called Prevention for a Healthier America, emphasizes a major role for nonprofit community health programs such as the YMCA. It also advocates that state and local governments help create healthier communities.

Researchers endorsed such initiatives as increased tobacco taxes, smoke-free laws, nutrition labeling on restaurant menus and maintaining sidewalks as low-cost ways to encourage healthy living.

"What's been interesting is that if you make it easier for people to make better choices, they actually do," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health.

The researchers commended several innovative community health initiatives, including a children's program in Dallas that has led to healthier eating and increased physical activity among youngsters and the District's new Child Health Action Plan, which targets some of the city's worst health problems affecting youth.

However, the researchers found that many such programs lack funding, a chronic problem for many preventive health initiatives.

"People think preventive health care "pays off 20 or 30 years from now, but this shows you get the money back almost immediately, and then the savings grow bigger and bigger," Harkin said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company