01/09/2015 06:23 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Changing the Landscape for Prevention and Health Promotion

By Bridget B. Kelly and Derek Yach*

Chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are major contributors to poor health and rising health care costs in the U.S. The cost of treating these conditions is estimated to account for 80 percent of annual health care expenditures. More and more, experts agree on the great potential for preventing or delaying many cases of costly chronic diseases by focusing on environmental, social, and behavioral root influences on health. Yet the U.S. has been slow to complement its considerable spending on biomedical treatments with investments in population-based and non-clinical prevention interventions.

What is getting in the way of strengthening our investments in prevention and health promotion? A few consistent themes emerged across multiple expert consensus studies conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which were summarized in the report Improving Support for Heath Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention -- developed in support of the recent Vitality Institute Commission on Health Promotion and Prevention of Chronic Disease in Working-Age Americans.

First, prevention is challenging -- chronic health problems are complex, and so are the solutions. Second, decision-makers who allocate resources have tough choices to make among many competing pressures and priorities; prevention and promotion can be at a disadvantage because their benefits are delayed. Third, there is a need for better, more usable evidence related to the effectiveness, the implementation at scale, and the economics of prevention interventions. Decision-makers need information that makes it easier to understand, identify, and successfully implement prevention strategies and policies. As noted in a recent opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), limited investment in prevention research has resulted in an inaccurate perception that investing in preventive measures is of limited value. This has profound implications for federal funding allocations.

The mismatch in funding allocations is seen right at the source of our nation's major investment in new health-related knowledge: the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A new paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that less than 10 percent of the NIH annual budget for chronic diseases is allocated to improving our knowledge base for effective behavioral interventions to prevent chronic diseases. This means that despite the immense potential for prevention science to reduce the burden of chronic diseases in the U.S., it is woefully underfunded compared to what we invest in researching biomedical treatment interventions for these conditions. NIH investments affect what evidence is ultimately available to those who decide how to allocate resources to improve the health of our nation, and they also affect the kinds of health experts we train as a country. By not investing in prevention science and in a future generation of scientists capable of doing high quality research in prevention, we are perpetually caught in the same vicious cycle where prevention continues to lag behind in our knowledge and therefore our actions.

There is hope that the landscape is slowly changing. Initiatives such as the NIH Office of Disease Prevention's Strategic Plan for 2014-2018 and the Affordable Care Act's mandated Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) have the potential to strengthen prevention science and build the evidence-base for effective prevention interventions. Innovations in personalized health technologies and advances in behavioral economics also show great promise in improving health behaviors for chronic disease prevention.

The Vitality Institute Commission's report emphasized the need for faster and more powerful research and development cycles for prevention interventions through increased federal funding for prevention science as well as the fostering of stronger public-private partnerships. It is essential to generate and communicate evidence in a way that enables decision-makers to understand the value of investing in prevention while taking into account their priorities, interests and constituencies. This will lead us to more balanced investments, make prevention a national priority, and boost the health of the nation.

*The authors are responsible for the content of this article, which does not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Medicine.