The global human tragedy that is COVID-19 has made all of us more grateful for and more focused on our individual health, but it has also brought home one indisputable fact: health is quite literally wealth on a societal scale.
We read the daily reports that the more economically vulnerable among us are more likely to be harmed, reinforcing the role of social determinants in shaping health outcomes. However, this crisis underscores a corollary truth: that poor health itself leads to poor economic outcomes, both for individuals and societies. In this case, simply the threat of disease has cost millions of Americans their employment and left us trillions of dollars in debt.
The correlations between health status and economic success are well-established. As a country, we often focus correctly on the negative correlation, that is that those without economic means are more like to experience diminished health status. Arguably, we don’t spend enough time considering the other side of the equation – that poor health status leads to negative economic outcomes – for individuals, communities and nations.
Consider the case of rare genetic diseases in children. Yes, it is true that those with greater economic means may be able to better manage those conditions; but it is also true that the conditions themselves often force families into poverty because of the costs of managing the disease as well as the lost opportunity costs that come with not being able to work because of the need to care for a sick child. In the case of a condition like sickle cell disease that is concentrated in certain communities, in this case predominantly African-Americans, the burden becomes generational, as those with the disease are often less able to work and have shorter lifespans, thus creating economic hardship that is compounded over time.
Too often we talk about health care spending as a drag on the economy, as if health care is not a contributor to the economy. The current pandemic should make us think otherwise. Health care is vital. Healthier people and nations are more economically successful people and nations.
In the case of COVID-19, it will be technology in the form of testing, treatments and vaccines that will ultimately help us emerge from the current crisis. When those technologies ultimately come on-line they will save not only our health, but also our economy.
Coming out of this crisis we should consider, beyond COVID-19, how to re-energize our approach to health. In areas like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, rare diseases and others we increasingly have good solutions that when fully utilized could lift up the health and wealth of those who have been left behind.
Perhaps the rock group U2 best summed up the duality of health status in their song, “God Part II,” when they sang “the rich stay healthy; the sick stay poor.”
Let’s use the tremendous power and innovation of our health care system to change the tune.