Avoidable Deaths Cost Trillions Worldwide in Lost Economic Welfare, Study Says

Deaths from treatable conditions may cost the world $6 trillion a year in lost economic welfare, according to a study led by Harvard Medical School researchers and published in the June issue of Health Affairs. Eight million deaths could have been avoided in 2015 with proper access to high-quality medical care.

Deaths from treatable conditions may cost the world $6 trillion a year in lost economic welfare, according to a study led by Harvard Medical School researchers and published in the June issue of Health Affairs. Eight million deaths could have been avoided in 2015 with proper access to high-quality medical care.

Ninety-six percent of the deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the economic burden falls squarely on low-income countries, the study reported, using data from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project.

The 2015 GBD project estimates morbidity and mortality of 38 diseases that are survivable in areas with high-quality healthcare. It calculates the number of deaths across 195 countries that would be prevented if that same standard of care were available everywhere.

Avoidable mortality includes 2 types of deaths: those that could be prevented with public health measures and regulation (such as taxing tobacco products) and those that are amenable to medical care.

The researchers calculated the economic cost of lost life in 2 ways. First, they estimated the direct loss of economic output, which captures the amount that the workforce contributes to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which has a direct impact on economic development.

The value of lost output from deaths amenable to treatment would result in a cumulative loss of $11.2 trillion in low- and middle-income countries between 2015 and 2030, the researchers estimated. This number captures loss of productivity and would translate to economic loss of up to 2.6% of all economic output across low-income countries by 2030.

The analysis showed that the loss of human lives translates into an economic one as well, costing $6 trillion in lost economic welfare. This measure, broader than GDP losses, captures the inherent value that individuals place on their own good health.

“It is important to attach monetary cost to the otherwise immeasurable loss of human life because those numbers can provide economic incentives that spur changes in policy and health care investment that save lives,” John Meara, MD, DMD, MBA, the Kletjian Professor of Global Surgery and director of the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard Medical School and plastic surgeon-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in a statement.

The economic toll would be most evident in the poorest countries, further worsening economic disparities. Inadequate access to high-quality medical care in poor countries fuels a cycle of economic devastation, the researchers noted.

The study did not try to calculate the cost of treating avoidable causes of death across the globe but cited a previous estimate of $371 billion to achieve universal healthcare by 2030. However, universal healthcare is not enough, the researchers wrote, adding that providing high-quality care must also be included.

“Good health care should not be a luxury available only to people in high-income countries,” said Alexander Peters, MD, a surgery resident at Weill Cornell Medical College and a research fellow in the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard Medical School and in the Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s an ethical and economic investment in sustainable development that we can’t afford to pass up.”

The researchers said that their study is believed to be the first to quantify the economic impact of insufficient access to healthcare.

Reference

Alkire BC, Peters AW, Shrime MG, Meara JG. The economic consequences of mortality amenable to high-quality health care in low- and middle-income countries. Health Aff (Millwood). 2018;37(6):988-996. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2017.1233.