Health study reaffirms prevention

An ounce of prevention in community health programs could save states hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs, a new study has found.

The report from Trust for American Health, a nonprofit health advocacy group here, found that programs encouraging physical activity and healthy eating and discouraging smoking were a better investment than those concentrating on treatment. The results are laid out in a state-by-state breakdown.

“We've got to change the mindset from treating sick people to preventing illnesses in the first place, and this report shows that we ought to be more serious about investing up front,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The report, called “Prevention for a Healthier America,” emphasizes a major role of nonprofit community health programs, such as the YMCA, in preventative efforts, as well as the responsibility of state and local governments to help create healthier communities.

Researchers endorsed such initiatives as increased tobacco taxes, smoke-free laws, nutrition labeling on restaurant menus and maintaining sidewalks as low-cost ways to encourage healthy living.

“What's been interesting is that if you make it easier for people to make better choices, they actually do,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health.

Researchers commended several innovative community health program: a children's health program in Dallas that has led to healthier eating and increased physical activity among several thousand children; a bike network in Davis, Calif., that resulted in more bicycle travel; and Washington, D.C.'s Child Health Action Plan, which was announced earlier this year.

However, the researchers found that many such programs lack funding, diminishing their potential for affecting community health.

Levi said funding is a chronic problem for many preventative health initiatives.

“People think preventative health care pays off 20 or 30 years from now, but this shows you get the money back almost immediately, and then the savings grow bigger and bigger,” Harkin said.