Public health week celebrates the value of prevention efforts

Itís hard to believe that something exists if we canít see it. How does one explain the benefit of something that didnít happen Ė much less actually quantify it? No, Iím not talking physics or philosophy here Ė Iím talking public health and one of its major components: prevention. Preventing diseases from happening, preventing injuries from occurring and preventing substance abuse from even starting.

In doing our work at San Juan Basin Health Department, these nonevents are ďproductsĒ that society does not see, and therefore, often does not comprehend or appreciate. While this is understandable, itís important that we in public health help the community grasp our mission.

So every year since 1995, National Public Health Week is celebrated to raise awareness of what public health is and its value to our communities. This yearís theme is ROI (Return on Investment): Save Lives, Save Money. The week will document the preventive value of many of our services and programs.

Routine immunizations save $9.9 million in direct health-care costs, save 33,000 lives and prevent 14 million cases of disease. San Juan Basin Health provides adult vaccinations as well as its Vaccine for Children program, which makes low-cost, routine immunizations available. Immunizations ROI: $1 spent, $18.40 saved.

Our home- and community-based services help 340 clients stay in their homes with support services, thus preventing placement in a nursing home. One study found home programs produced a savings of $43 million in Colorado in just one year.

Nationally, pre-term births cost $26 billion a year. Women, Infants and Children prenatal benefits reduce the rate of low birth weight babies by 25 percent and very low birth weight babies by 44 percent. SJBHís WIC supplemental nutrition education and assistance program serves more than 1,000 clients each month. Benefits continue after the mother gives birth, as WICís Breast-feeding Peer Support program works with mothers to breast-feed their babies for at least six months. Breast-feeding up to six months ROI: $3.5 billion.

Less than 15 percent of adults and 10 percent of adolescents eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables each day. WIC also addresses this, but so do SJBHís promotora (bilingual-bicultural health educator) and worksite wellness program. Chronic diseases cause Americans to miss work each year, resulting in lost productivity totaling more than $1 trillion. Worksite wellness ROI: $1 spent, $3.27 in medical savings.

If every state without a comprehensive smoke-free policy adopted one, smoking-related deaths could be reduced by 624,000. They also would save more than $316 million in lung-cancer treatment and more than $875 million in heart attack and stroke treatment over five years. Fortunately, Colorado has the Clean Indoor Air law. Our Celebrating Healthy Communities coalition educates people and local businesses about the smoke-free law and helped expand the provisions to cover outdoor parks and recreational trails.

The U.S. spends far more on health care than any other country, with costs rising tenfold from 1980 to 2010. However, a Trust for Americaís Health study found that investing in proven, community-based public-health efforts could save $16 billion over 5 years. Public Health ROI: $1 spent, $5.60 saved.

Sometimes, it really is the things that you canít see that have value. People can help public health be more visible by standing up for the value of public health and prevention in our lives and spreading the word that investing in public health is an investment in our nationís health and future.

Jane Looney is the communications director for the San Juan Basin Health Department.