Prevention Is Still the Best Medicine | Commentary

The ongoing political play over the Affordable Care Act has grabbed headlines and stirred heated debate across America. But believe it or not, there is one principle of the ACA that is actually supported on a bipartisan basis; is proven to lower health care costs; can pay immediate societal dividends; helps insurance companies, hospitals and doctors; and puts one’s health care directly in the hands of the consumer.

It’s called prevention. And it’s a shame that this pivotal aspect of health care reform has been overshadowed by the debate over the ACA itself.

It is well established that a key driver of health care spending in the United States over the past several decades has been the treatment of preventable chronic diseases. Not only does this ring out in health care statistics, but we see it when we look around at our disproportionately overweight, increasingly diabetic population.

Roughly half of Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease. Roughly two-thirds are obese or overweight. We spend 84 cents of every health care dollar on the treatment of patients with chronic conditions each and every year. That means $2.2 trillion annually — or if you look at it another way, roughly 13 percent of our national debt.

When you consider these figures, you would think that prevention would be at the forefront of every political leader’s mind and woven into every health care discussion. It’s not.

Even in today’s climate of extreme partisanship, preventing disease shouldn’t be a divisive issue. After all, we cannot function optimally as a nation if only a decreasing subset of our population bears the fruit of wellness. Indeed, only a healthy nation can be a prosperous nation.

The good news is that prevention — specifically primary prevention — is both behavior-based and relatively low-cost. It has long-term benefits. It doesn’t have a party affiliation. And it doesn’t have to be partisan. It’s something everyone should get behind.

By primary prevention, I mean healthy behaviors that put off diseases before they start. I mean beneficial lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, good nutrition, regular stress management and avoiding all forms of tobacco and other controlled substances. While health screenings and early diagnosis are certainly important in the effective treatment of many diseases, they are not primary prevention.

Primary prevention starts before disease takes hold, and it starts with the individual. But realistically, primary prevention can only be sustained if it is supported by a society’s culture and mind frame — which is something that we all need to influence and is certainly something that our political leaders can do something about.

For individuals to effectively practice primary prevention in the battle against chronic disease and its inherent costs, they must be supported by public health policies that enable them to make healthy lifestyle choices as a routine way of life.

According to the World Health Organization, common modifiable risk factors — including physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet and tobacco use — underlie the major chronic diseases. If these risk factors were eliminated, at least 80 percent of all heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes — along with more than 40 percent of cancer — would be prevented.

We also know that primary prevention pays off. In fact, a Trust for America’s Health study found that an investment of merely $10 per person per year in proven evidence-based community prevention programs that increase physical activity, improve nutrition and prevent smoking and other tobacco use could save the country more than $16 billion annually within five years. That’s more than a five-fold return on investment — $5.60 for every $1.

If the polls are any indication, Americans are tired — tired of the rancor, tired of the endless rhetoric and fruitless spinning of wheels. We want our economy to get better. We want our lives to get better. We want our children’s futures to look brighter. But none of it can happen if we don’t start doing something — really accomplishing something — in regard to our nation’s health.

Members of Congress: We need you to stand behind primary prevention. Write about it in your constituent newsletters. Mention it during your radio talks and TV interviews. Make speeches on the subject during your town hall meetings. But most of all, enact legislation that spurs Americans’ efforts to exercise and lead healthy lifestyles. Primary prevention is the only sure way to stop the tide of chronic disease and obesity that is eroding our health, our economy, our future and our nation. We need you to get behind it.

Helen Durkin is the executive vice president of public policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.