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Small Increases In Social Spending Can Make A Big Difference To Overall Population Health

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It may seem counter-intuitive, but siphoning money from healthcare could go a long way to improve people’s overall health. A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has found that putting aside a small slice of healthcare funding and spending it on social services instead can significantly improve life expectancy and cut instances of premature death. 

"Spending more on health care sounds like it should improve health, but our study suggests that is not the case and social spending could be used to improve the health of everyone," said Daniel Dutton, from The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary in Canada, in a statement.


Researchers came to this conclusion after examining 31 years’ worth of retrospective data (1981 to 2011) from all but one of Canada’s 10 provinces. (Prince Edward Island and the northern territories were excluded from the study because they lacked sufficient data.)

When social spending grew relative to healthcare spending, life expectancy increased and avoidable mortality declined. There didn’t seem to be a significant change when it comes to infant mortality figures. But, perhaps most surprisingly, similar increases in health spending did not produce the same positive results. 

The team found that a small rise (say, 1 percent) in social spending per dollar of health spending can make a huge difference to the general health of a population.

"If governments spent one cent more on social services per dollar spent on health by rearranging money between the two portfolios, life expectancy could have experienced an additional 5 percent increase and potentially avoidable mortality could have experienced an additional 3 percent decrease in one year," Dutton added.


It may help to think of social services as pre-emptive healthcare – higher education levels, quality housing, and access to safe amenities have all been linked to better health.

"If social spending addresses the social determinants of health, then it is a form of preventive health spending and changes the risk distribution for the entire population rather than treating those with disease,” said Dutton.

"Redirecting resources from health to social services, that is, rearranging payment without additional spending, is an efficient way to improve health outcomes."  

The findings here back up previous research that has associated higher social spending with better health outcomes and comes at a time when many of the world's healthcare systems are reaching a crisis point. (Blame the baby boomers!)


According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “healthcare costs are rising so fast in advanced economies that they will become unaffordable by mid-century without reforms.”


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