Sunday, June 10, 2018
Why don't we spend more on public health? It is harder to see the bullets we dodged -- and then there is profit.
“It Saves Lives. It Can Save Money. So Why Aren’t We Spending More on Public Health?” (New York Times, May 28, 2018). Actually, this is a terrific question. As so often, it is complicated. Let’s start with the benefits that authors Aaron E. Carroll and Austin Frakt describe. First, there are vaccines. They eliminated smallpox and virtually eliminated polio in the United States. They have dramatically reduced the rate of common childhood illnesses including measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and Hemophilus influenza (H. flu) infection. They have the potential for essentially wiping out cervical cancer through immunization against HPV, and liver cancer (as well as many forms of chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis) through vaccines against Hepatitis B.
A huge public health intervention is making our environment safer. This means having good sewage and clean water, and lead-free gasoline and cleaner air. These changes have saved far more lives, and improved health much more, than all of the individual medical care interventions combined. If you have traveled abroad, especially to less developed countries, you know how important these are. Indeed, better sanitation, as well as better surveillance and treatment, have dramatically reduced other infectious diseases that were once terribly feared, notably tuberculosis. And inspection of our food supply, restaurant and otherwise, are another very important part of public health.
The other big public health measure is education. Of course, education can be and is provided to individuals by health professionals as well as populations via public service education, but it is major nationwide public health efforts that have made a big difference. These include the huge decrease in cigarette smoking, and the greater safety of automobiles and their exhausts. Cigarette smoking used to be ubiquitous (see any WW2 movie) and in what would shock young Americans today, widely practiced in restaurants and even college lecture halls. Today that is unimaginable, and smoking in most places is aberrant, with less than 15% of adults currently smoking and most of those trying to quit. Car accidents are still a major cause of death and injury, but deaths from cars are way down. Almost none of this is related to people driving more safely and almost all of it to safer design of cars (think seat belts, air bags, engines that collapse down instead of back in a collision) and roads. Lead poisoning of children is way down in most places in the US thanks to lead being banned from gasoline and paint.
There are still many challenges on the public health front. Reducing the rate of chronic diseases though education around eating huge numbers of empty calories still have a long way to go. The terrible infectious disease epidemic of recent decades, HIV, has been greatly reduced by treatment, but until there is a vaccine, high-risk sexual behaviors persist. The opioid epidemic is killing more and more people, and it is only through societal approaches that this is going to be reduced.
The epidemic of gun death is not abating; many studies and articles in the press have recently discussed the increase in the suicide rate, often prompted by recent high-profile suicides such as those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain (How Suicide Quietly Morphed Into a Public Health Crisis; 5 Takeaways on America’s Increasing Suicide Rate, ). While neither Spade or Bourdain used a gun, guns are the cause of death in at least half of suicides, and suicide far exceeds homicide in terms of numbers of gun deaths. Those who believe it is not the availability of guns that causes deaths from both causes, and other methods could be used to kill oneself or others, are simply wrong. Easy availability of guns, far more effective and efficient at killing oneself or others than any other method, absolutely has been demonstrated to increase both homicide and suicide. Suicide by gun is over 90% effective; by drugs less than 5%. “Successful” suicide rates are far higher in high gun states (e.g., Montana) than in low-gun states (e.g., Massachusetts). Homicides are also more common where guns are at hand. And, in regard to school and other mass shootings, while you can kill someone with a knife or a baseball bat, but it is hard to commit mass murder with them.
So, why do we not spend more on public health? Why do we spend so much more on what is, from a societal point of view, much less effective individual health interventions, and less than 5% of that on public health? One reason, of course, is that when each of us is sick, we (usually) want treatment, as much as possible, especially if there is a chance that it could cure us, or at least ease our suffering. This is understandable, and it is tied to the fact that we have much greater awareness of treatment of something ailing us (curing our infection, relieving our pain) than of not having disease because of the presence of public health practices. As I would tell students, how often do we wake up thankful that we do not have cholera because we have a clean water supply? Indeed, when we find that the water in Flint, MI, is contaminated with lead, we are shocked because we assume our water is safe; when we find an E. coli outbreak from a restaurant, we are shocked because we assume our food is safe.
There is also, unsurprisingly, the issue of the money that to be made. The provision of public health is rarely a big profit center, and it is usually, therefore, done by government – local, state, and federal. Individual health care, however, is a huge money-maker for insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical and device manufacturers, nursing home companies, and on and on. All that money – over $3.3 TRILLION by recent estimate -- spent on your and other individuals, while it may (or may not) have a salubrious impact on you, is going into someone’s pocket. On the flip side, public health interventions often reduce profit, especially when they are very effective. The struggle against tobacco, which killed more people than any other cause by far, was fought long and hard by the tobacco companies (currently now plying their wares in the less-developed world).Each of the changes to cars that led to the great increases in safety was fought by the industry. Today, we continue to see tremendous opposition to rules that make our environment (air, water) clean and safe; sadly, under the current administration, many of these rules are being rolled back, which will absolutely decrease our society’s health.
I guess I also need to address the people who believe that vaccines are unsafe. They are a major threat, and presumably haven’t seen children dying of measles, of the suffering of chicken pox and mumps, of the morbidity from H. flu infections of the middle ear (my students have never seen it!) or deaths from H. flu epiglottitis. Yes, there can be minor side effects from some vaccines, but the benefit is overwhelming.
Finally, as always finally, it is the poor and disenfranchised who suffer the worst. While sometimes we have the perverse satisfaction of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in well-to-do communities, anti-vaxxers unconscionably campaign in immigrant/refugee communities telling people to not vaccinate their children. The poor and minority city of Flint suffers a poisoned water supply. The oldest, cheapest houses are likeliest to have peeling lead paint and be located near polluting factories and dumps. Tobacco and junk food manufacturers advertise most heavily in minority neighborhoods. And, of course, the murder rate is highest in poor and minority communities.
Good medical care for individuals is valuable when it is needed, and could be less expensive. Public health measures are even more valuable and cost-effective. We need to increase the money and effort spent upon public health interventions, and certainly not scale them back.
Benjamin Franklin said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s true, and is a great argument for greater investment in public health.