Ready for the Taking: The Economic & Health Benefits of Implementing Cancer Prevention

For a topic that always gets a lot of news coverage, health and healthcare has been in the media even more than usual since the 2016 election. While it’s unclear exactly where the current debates on Obamacare and the American Health Care Act will lead, a Sounding Board article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine by Karen Emmons, PhD and Washington University’s Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH makes one thing clear: we could drastically cut the burden of cancer if we invest appropriate health resources to successfully implementing the things we already know could prevent more than half of all cancers. 

In the sweeping article, Emmons and Colditz detail the often large disparities between states in rates of healthy behaviors that can lower cancer risk. In the nation as a whole, for example, 15 percent of people smoke, but rates vary by 17 percentage points between Utah (9.7 percent) and West Virginia (26.7 percent). Rates of obesity vary by 16 percentage points between Colorado (20.2 percent) and Louisiana (36.2 percent). And rates of physical inactivity vary 15 points between Colorado (16.4) and Mississippi (31.4 percent). Such inequality can be parsed further, with rates varying within states by county and socioeconomic groups, for example.  Vulnerable populations — those in poverty, or with mental health issues, or in minority groups — often have worse health profiles and health outcomes compared to others.

The effort to combat smoking — one of the greatest public health success stories of the past 50 years — still has great room for improvement. State cigarette taxes on a pack of cigarettes, which demonstrably leads to lower smoking rates, vary from less than 25 cents a pack to over four dollars. And evidence-based programs to help people quit smoking are unevenly implemented and unevenly funded not only between states but across town. Devoting enough resources to fully realize the benefit of controlling tobacco use nationwide will have large health and economic benefits.

 Emmons and Colditz write as an example:

“Every $1 expended on a comprehensive smoking-cessation program in Massachusetts was associated with a return on investment of $2.12.”

This Massachusetts program, MassHealth, expanded evidence-based tobacco-cessation coverage in low-income smokers and included effective pharmacological approaches. The program lowered rates of smoking in this group by 26 percent — a group with typically static cessation rates, and the annual rate of admissions for heart attacks dropped 46 percent, and admissions for coronary atherosclerosis dropped 49 percent.

Other cancer-prevention approaches — increasing activity, controlling weight, improving diet, and getting youth vaccinated against HPV, say — also have vast potential for health benefits nationwide.  If they get implemented and implemented effectively.  Yet, efforts to determine the best way to get people and communities to adopt such behaviors — and then to put these into practice — are under-resourced. As Emmons and Colditz write:

“Simply put, as a nation, we continue to underinvest in primary prevention and screening and fail to adopt strategies to ensure that all population groups benefit equally from our knowledge of cancer prevention.”

Yet, as with tobacco cessation, we know certain approaches work with these other risk factors. Rates of HPV vaccination lag significantly between the US and Australia. The US lacks a comprehensive, effective vaccination program, which leads to lower rates overall and large variability between states, with 68.0 percent of girls fully vaccinated in Rhode Island but only 24.4 percent in Mississippi. Australia, on the other hand has an overall rate of 74 percent for girls and one nearly as high for boys.

The difference? HPV vaccination in Australia is mandated for boys and girls and is paid for by the Australian government. The high vaccination rates have led to a substantial drop in positive Pap tests and the need for women to return for after-test follow-up. The future drop in rates of cervical cancer because of HPV vaccination should be substantial.

We should build on such lessons and learn what works best in the US for implementing cancer-prevention strategies. Research should focus on the patient, provider, organization, and policy levels to increase cancer prevention interventions to lower healthcare costs and patient mortality. Such as,

  • Funding for safety net clinics (at-risk populations). Health equity is key. We must be sure to focus on preventing cancer in the most vulnerable populations. 
  • Implementing environment and policy changes. Talking multiple levels of society works, such as smoking bans at work, schools, and restaurants; and required HPV vaccinations for school children. 
  • Fostering a focus on prevention in clinical settings. This can include: Patient education and provider interaction about smoking cessation, lifestyle factors, and recommended screening. 

While learning to effectively put into practice those things we already know can prevent cancer may not be as flashy or newsworthy as the discovery of a new treatment or previously unidentified gene mutation, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the same attention and the same resources.

The real power of prevention has yet to be realized – or even really appreciated. Yet, prevention has been shown to work in public health interventions, to be cost effective, to lower mortality, and to have a high return on investment.  It is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

As Emmons and Colditz conclude:

“ Although many efforts are under way to maximize our knowledge about the causes and treatments of cancer, we can achieve reductions in the cancer burden right now by doing what we already know works. Enhanced investment in research that increases our understanding of how to implement the knowledge we have is needed. Our moonshot is right here — ready for the taking.”

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