Healthy people are critical to a healthy economy – public health is the answer
As public health professionals, we want each human being to realize their unique potential and to fulfill the miracle of their existence. Our focus is population-scale prevention and intervention. Private industry has traditionally viewed the public health agenda as an oddity; tending to instead place its focus on making profitable:
Historically, it has not been clear how to make money on prevention.
Now comes a pandemic, and the global economy takes an enormous hit. Why? Because while the existence of each human being is a miracle, in an economic context, human beings are a means of production and consumption. When people are burdened with poor health for themselves or their loved ones, when they face obstacles and bear the burden of socially constructed disparities, they are terribly inefficient as producers and consumers.
As public health professionals, we get it. Now, it is incumbent upon public health academics and other public health professionals to help private industry catch on. We need to use the tools of business and economics to translate our work into business terms. We need to identify finance mechanisms and develop markets in which capital is made available for large-scale public health investments that yield returns to investors.
Economic impacts of public health challenges
Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a frame, we can make a simple argument about the economic impacts of public health challenges. Let us put aside the human elements of suffering from poor health and focus on simple economic factors such as production and consumption.
In December 2019, the US economy was strong, with unemployment at the lowest rate since 1969. Each person in the US contributed $65,000 toward the gross domestic product, or $178 per day. In addition, each person in the US consumed just over $40,000 of goods and services. We had a healthy economy. Also, during this time, cases of severe pneumonia of unknown origin were first reported.
“If each COVID-19 case resulted in just seven days of lost productivity for the sick person and their family members, the disease decreased US gross domestic product by $3.4 billion in these early months.”
By June of 2020, this disease labeled COVID-19 had spread worldwide. In the United States, 2.7 million cases of COVID-19 were reported. If each COVID-19 case resulted in just seven days of lost productivity for the sick person and their family members, the disease decreased US gross domestic product by $3.4 billion in these early months. Tragically, at this point, 124,000 people have died from the disease. With an average life expectancy of 78.8 years, each death represents an average of 8 years lost consumption based on the age distribution of COVID-19 deaths. Ignoring the crushing human tragedy that each death represents to friends and loved ones, COVID-19 mortality reduces economic consumption by $39.6 billion in 2019 fiscal terms.
Fast forward to September 2021, and using these same assumptions, 42.5 million COVID-19 cases have reduced economic productivity by $53 billion, and 679,600 deaths have reduced consumption by $216 billion.
A global pandemic is but one public health challenge we face.
We have rising morbidity and mortality from climate-related events such as:
- Extreme heat
- Severe weather, and
We have crushing health disparities by which every public health crisis is disproportionately felt by groups including black, indigenous, LatinX, and people of color. We have a mental health crisis in which services are not available to the majority of people who need them.
Public health has solutions for a healthy economy
Public health has solutions.
- If your company is in data sciences, speak with us about our unique data assets that provide detailed risk information at micro-geographic scales.
- If your company is in insurance or finance, speak with us about targeted interventions to reduce morbidity and mortality.
- If your company delivers health services, come speak with us about ways to reduce disparities and improve mental and physical health outcomes.
It’s time to shift our thinking to include public health in all economic activities—to use public health to inform policies, products, services, and the healthcare system itself. We must blend public health and business expertise in order to ensure a healthy economy. When it comes down to it, healthy people are critical to a healthy economy. As a school, Boston University School of Public Health is ready to lead toward a future in which public health and private industry work together for the health of all.
We look forward to continuing the conversation.
Read more about how The Economy is All about Public Health.
Craig S. Ross, PhD, MBA Dr. Ross serves as Executive Director of the idea hub at Boston University School of Public Health and holds a faculty position in the Epidemiology Department. Dr. Ross conducts research at the intersection of commerce and public health. He has published more than 40 studies examining the influence of alcohol advertising on underage drinking. He is also interested in novel research designs using ecological momentary assessment methods to examine real-life contexts for substance use.