$1 Per Person Per Year

By Tom Farley

I often hear comments that messages in the mass media are too expensive for health promotion. My reaction is “compared to what”?

Costs for medical care have grown so unceasingly and to such a high level that we have become numb to them. But they are something to behold: in 2013, our nation spent $2.9 trillion for medical care. That’s more than one in every six dollars we spend.  It averages to $9,255 per American. 

Although those costs don’t arrive in the mail on any single bill, we all pay that $9,255. We pay it in health insurance premiums, lower salaries (when our employer pays for our health insurance), taxes (for Medicare and Medicaid), and of course those deductibles and copays when we get sick. 

What else could someone buy for $9,255? Well, that’s $25 a day, which is enough for a person to eat fairly well. Or it’s $771 a month, which is enough to rent or share a small apartment, or even pay the mortgage on a $150,000 condo. When so much of America is struggling to eat or is homeless, it’s stunning to think that we could feed or house all 316 million of us for the money we spend on medical care

If we could trim health care costs by even 1%, it would save the nation $29 billion a year, or nearly $100 for every one of us.

So it’s worth trying hard – really hard – to see how we can cut health care costs. In general, we can reduce costs by making our medical care system less wasteful and more efficient, by offering sick people fewer medical services, or by keeping people healthier. I’m all for reducing waste and raising efficiency, but we also ought to try keeping people healthier – because isn’t that what our health system is supposed to be about?

A few behaviors matter a lot to health. Smoking, diet, physical activity, and excess alcohol consumption are the biggest ones. We can nudge and help people change these behaviors with messages in the mass media. Those anti-smoking ads work. Messages on nutrition to counteract junk food advertising work.

How much do these health ads cost? Much less than you might think.

Studies show that you can change the smoking rate in an entire population with TV ads running at a “dose” of 10,000 Gross Ratings Points (GRPs) per year. A single GRP represents one percent of a population seeing an ad (on average) once. So 10,000 GRPs means that the average person sees an ad 100 times.

What do 10,000 GRPs cost? In a metropolitan area of 1 million people, television time costs roughly $100 per GRP. That means 10,000 GRPs cost $1 million, or $1 per person per year.

Now doesn’t it seem worth an investment of $1 per person to try to get even modest savings on the $9,255 per person we spend on medical care?