For decades, research has been able to directly link health and the economy. For example, a recent literature review from Cornell University’s John Cawley shows that the total medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is approximately $350 billion per year.
Healthier populations contribute to a stronger local economy, and a stronger local economy contributes to a healthier population. The strongest connection between health and the economy is sustaining a healthier workforce. Healthier workers are more likely to show up for work, more productive when at work, are in better physical and mental health, and are more likely to better themselves through education and skills training.
Further, a strong economy means better jobs, better benefits like health insurance and higher pay. When people are paid more, they are more likely to invest in higher education, which in turn improves health and income.
New data, new answers
Today, we can better understand this relationship with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health IndexSM— a first-of-its-kind measurement of health for nearly every county across the United States. Powered by de-identified data which controlled for demographic and statewide factors from more than 40 million members insured by Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) companies, it explores the impact of 200 different diseases and conditions on the health and well-being of individuals and their communities. This claims data – representing actual healthcare experiences – provides unprecedented insights.
Our analysis of the BCBS Health IndexSM confirmed a strong relationship between health and economic performance. For example, the top performing counties in the BCBS Health IndexSM had incomes nearly $4,000 higher and GDP almost $10,000 higher than the national average. Their unemployment rates were also more than half a percentage point lower than the average – and that is after controlling for demographics and other factors.
These findings demonstrate that healthiness of a population plays an increasingly important role in economic outcomes. Healthier communities can bounce back faster than unhealthier ones because they have faster job, population and income growth. This is particularly important for areas still focused on recovering from economic shocks such as the Great Recession.
Solving for Why
The next question to solve for must incorporate the insights of public health experts, healthcare professionals, economists, community leaders and even urban planners – why are some communities healthier than others and what can be done to improve the most challenged areas?
To answer this question, we must continue to grow our body of data; dig deep to understand what’s happening in communities that are struggling; connect the dots between the social, economic and environmental causes of poor health outcomes; and understand and share what’s working in communities with similar challenges.