- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We’ve all been there. Sick, weak and nauseous, we trudge to the pharmacy to buy every possible remedy. “If I ever get well again, I’ll stop taking my health for granted,” we say to ourselves. “I’ll take care of myself from now on.”

Then, a few weeks after we’ve recovered, we’re back to taking our health for granted. Back to our old habits. And then we’re sick again, back at the pharmacy, emptying our wallets for any kind of relief. If we had just taken care of ourselves, we wouldn’t be sick, and our bank accounts would be healthier, too.

As a nation, we’re no different. Our outmoded health care system is designed to treat rather than prevent illnesses. In fact, “health care” is a misnomer. It’s really a disease care system. And we’re all paying the price — with our lives and our dollars.

Our organization, Partnership for Prevention, recently published a study that found increasing the use of just five preventive services would save more than 100,000 lives every year in the United States. That’s equivalent to keeping 250 jumbo jets from crashing every year.

The new study, funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and WellPoint Foundation, found that:

Each year, 45,000 additional lives would be saved if we increased the number of eligible adults who take aspirin daily to prevent cardiovascular disease (men over age 40, and women over 50). Yet today, fewer than half of eligible American adults take aspirin preventively.

If we increased the number of smokers who are advised by a health professional to quit and are offered medication or other assistance 42,000 additional lives would be saved each year. Today, little more than one-quarter (28 percent) of smokers receive such services.

Increasing the number of adults age 50 and older immunized against the flu every year would save 12,000 additional lives yearly. Today, only 37 percent of adults have had an annual flu vaccination.

Another 10,000 lives would be saved each year if we increased the number of adults age 50 and older up-to-date with any recommended screening for colorectal cancer. Today, fewer than 50 percent of adults are up to date with screening.

Nearly 4,000 additional lives would be saved each year if we increased the number of women age 40 and older screened for breast cancer in the past two years. Today, one-third of women have not been screened in the last two years.

As Dr. Julie Louise Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted, more preventive care would mean “more illnesses would be avoided, fewer lives would be lost, and there would be more efficient use of our limited health care resources. It’s important that all of us make a concerted attempt to focus our energies and efforts on preventing diseases, not just treating them.”

It’s time that our lawmakers establish prevention as a priority in the nation’s health reform debate. The newest report on health insurance premiums shows they rose twice the rate of overall inflation. Unless we invest in prevention, the U.S. is likely to face higher health-related costs, higher taxes, and lower quality care. But today, the U.S. invests only 5 cents of each health care dollar in prevention. Balancing this equation even a little bit would produce powerful health improvement results.

That means emphasizing prevention, not just treatments, in the Medicare and Medicaid programs and making preventive services — such as immunizations and screening for diseases — affordable and accessible to every American.

We also have to address the cultural, environmental and economic forces that contribute to the leading preventable causes of death and disease: tobacco use, poor nutrition, physical inactivity and alcohol and drug use.

Enough patients have lost their legs to diabetes. Enough children have lost their mothers to breast cancer. Enough wives have lost their husbands to heart disease.

We have suffered enough from preventable diseases that lead to more than half a million premature deaths and billions of excess costs each year. It’s time our policy makers strengthened our health system by investing more in preventing disease. The science of medicine has long subscribed to the old axiom, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s time our health system walked the talk.

If it did, we would all feel a lot better.

John M. Clymer is president of Partnership for Prevention, a nonprofit health policy research organization.

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