Planet Health: How adding preventative care can subtract from healthcare costs

When a child suffers from nutrition related health problems, it can cause a good deal of emotional and financial strain on her family. Obesity-related medical conditions like diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and cholesterol often lead to pricey medications and doctor visits, and are sometimes tied to emotional issues that can be costly to treat.

On the flip side, eating disorders can have a devastating affect on a person’s health and usually take years of regular therapy to treat successfully.

Treating these conditions in a single child is expensive; when you add together the cumulative costs of treating them on national level, the numbers are astronomical. But researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have found that a fairly inexpensive health promotion initiative could reduce both obesity and bulimia nervosa in adolescents, potentially saving millions in would-be healthcare costs.

Their study, recently published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, shows that by adopting an educational initiative called Planet Health, five Boston area schools successfully reduced the prevalence of obesity and behaviors linked to bulimia. If these Boston schools are any indication, a nationwide adoption of the program could lead to less obesity and eating disorders on a national level, thereby saving millions in healthcare dollars usually allotted to treating these conditions.

Planet Health focuses on an active lifestyle and healthy diet to encourage healthy weight.

Designed in the mid 1990s, Planet Health promotes better nutrition and physical activity to middle school students. But as it turns out the program did more than just prevent obesity; it also significantly reduced cases of serious eating disordered behaviors likely to lead to bulimia.

By focusing its curriculum on the benefits of healthful eating and physical activity, instead of just focusing on the negative effects of weight, Planet Health promotes healthy living on two levels.

“Programs like Planet Health are desirable because they address multiple health concerns, which are more beneficial to more people than programs with a narrow focus,” says S. Bryn Austin, ScD, an epidemiologist in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and senior author on the paper.

Austin’s colleagues first studied five schools using the Planet Health program, specifically looking at the schools’ 254 female students. The researchers found that girls who were exposed to Planet Health where less likely to be become obese than girls who didn’t participate in the program. By limiting obesity in these schools, the local populations saved $21,000 in medical expenses normally associated with childhood obesity.

Austin and her team then analyzed how Planet Health helped reduce the prevalence of many behaviors linked to bulimia, and in turn how that affected healthcare spending associated with the disease. Bulimia can often take years of extensive therapy to treat and the team determined that by preventing even one case per school system could save a community $34,000 in healthcare costs.

When you add together these savings and compare them to the cost of implementing Planet Health, ($47,000 per school), you’re left with a community that spends about $14,000 less in medical care costs than a district who’s public school doesn’t use Planet Health.

Money saved in obesity prevention ($27,000)

(+ plus)

Money saved in bulimia prevention ($34,000)

(- minus)

Cost of implementing Planet Health ($47,000)

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$14,000 left over.

If you multiply that $14,000 by the hundreds of thousands of school systems in the U.S., the incentive to adopt the program becomes pretty clear. “We live in a very cost conscious time and there is pressure to make sure every program we invest in has tangible returns,” says Austin. “In the long run Planet Health isn’t just cost effective, it can save money.”

In addition to their health benefits, programs like Planet Health are going to be appealing to policy makers looking to stretch the returns of every dollar they invest in social programs during economic hard times.

By preventing medical conditions before they occur, it's possible that Planet Health can help drive down rising helathcare costs in America.

“Many areas are dealing with limited resources for educational funding,” Austin says. “When we invest public money in one program, there’s a chance we are not investing in another. With that in mind we need to look for programs that maximize benefit for the whole community.”

And while Austin’s study may have focused on the cost saving efforts of Planet Health, she says the real benefit of the program lies in helping children lead happier, healthier lives.

“As health professionals, our number one goal is to prevent suffering,” she says. “Cost saving aspects are important, but helping children get on the path that leads to better health and a better relationship with their own bodies is the real value of our work.”