UC Berkeley study finds public health funding has high investment return

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Each dollar a county spends on public health programs in California has a return on investment of $67 to $88, according to a study conducted by campus public health professor Timothy Brown.

The study, which was published Thursday and was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, quantified return on investment for public health programs based on data collected from 2001 to 2009. Brown calculated return rate by using a standardized measure of the economic impact of a human life to assign monetary values to health outcomes.

“Public health is about preventing bad things from happening,” Brown said. “In this case, (it’s about) who didn’t die because of county departments of public health, and whose health got better.”

According to Brown, the overarching goal of the study was to make economic sense of public health programs. Similar to investing in stocks, public health funding can be evaluated by judging the ratio of revenues to costs, with the revenues in this case being improved health outcomes.

“Investment in such research must go hand in hand with investment in public health activities to obtain the long-term improvements in population health that we all work toward,” Brown said in the study.

Brown noted that even though counties would not receive financial returns on investments in public health programs, such investments — by improving the wellbeing of the general public — would ultimately be worthwhile. He added that these programs were “as important as public safety.”

According to Sherri Willis, a spokesperson for Alameda County’s Department of Public Health, more funding for public health programs enables systematically disenfranchised people to gain access to services such as medical care, housing and transportation. Willis added, however, that in order for these programs to be effective, implementing appropriate policy is crucial.

“Communities won’t get funded if policies recognizing their needs are not in place,” Willis said in an email.

A less overt benefit of public health programs, the study found, is that they have marked long term effects on community health, even though the programs are primarily engineered with the short term in mind. These longterm effects — including a decreased mortality rate — have in the past made public health programs difficult to appraise, given that their impact is not immediately measurable.

“Success in public health is thus measured in terms of the number of poor health outcomes that did not happen as a result of public health interventions,” Brown said in the study.

Contact Brenna Smith at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @bsmitty1853.