04/05/2011 11:01 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2011

Prevention Works

The problem with prevention is... it works. Prevented health conditions simply don't exist. Nobody sees them. Nobody mentions them. Anchors on TV don't rant on and on about diseases that aren't killing children. There are never above-the-fold news articles about teenagers who didn't crash their family's car and die on prom night. Even the cavities that didn't happen find no place in the daily conversation at the water cooler.

But the fact is... prevention works. Vaccines have saved countless lives, immunizing children against fatal and disabling illnesses like measles, Hemophilus influenza and polio. Injury prevention programs like Children Can't Fly have protected children from window falls in urban centers, cutting the rates of death in half. Lead screening and abatement interventions have radically reduced blood lead levels, boosting children's health and development. These and many other programs are tried and true, but are often underreported and underfunded. We must provide continued support to these vital programs so that all children and youth can take advantage of them.

Unfortunately, as a nation, we have never taken a prevention strategy seriously. This is what distinguishes us from so many of our developed nation counterparts. We wonder why it is that we spend so much money on health care -- 16% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to be exact -- and get such poor results. A large part of the reason is that other nations invest in prevention, public health infrastructure and primary care.

Information is piling up in medical, public health and even economic studies to show that prevention in childhood is the best way to avoid costly, long-term health and economic consequences. James Heckman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for demonstrating this. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Adverse Childhood Events study is documenting that a lack of prevention and protection for children in their early years predicts heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer in latter years.

It is time to look seriously at what health reform really means: putting into place inexpensive and effective interventions that have a positive impact on the health of all of our citizens. The Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund does just that.

The Fund provides opportunities for communities to determine how they want to work on healthy eating and physical activity and how they want to engage youth in planning community-based activities that build mental health and self esteem. The Fund empowers communities to consider ways to cut down injuries, interpersonal violence, teen pregnancy, use of drugs, alcohol, smoking and promiscuity. Preventing these problems saves us health care dollars, and more than that, it builds our communities into healthy and productive places for our citizens to live, reaping benefits for years to come.

Prevention works. As Congress looks to save money by cutting various federally-funded programs, the well-thought-out Prevention and Public Health Fund is one to save, not eliminate.

Doing away with prevention would mean lots to talk about at the water cooler and on the airwaves: no progress on reducing childhood infections, unnecessary injuries and deaths, teen pregnancy, interpersonal violence, drug and alcohol use and smoking. Continued, exponential increases in health care spending per capita with little to show for it in terms of improved health outcomes. Not only would cutting the Prevention and Public Health Fund harm our children's health, but it would negatively impact the productivity of our future workforce and perpetuate the flawed "pound for cure, penny for prevention" spending mantra of our current health care system.

My colleague Bob Block, the incoming president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says it best, "Every adult was once a child. If we want to save our country money, we need a health care system that builds on preventive services from the very beginning."

In supporting the Prevention and Public Health Fund, we now have the best chance we've ever had to take advantage of what we already know: prevention works.

Let's make it work for us.