TL: Does that mean we shouldn’t use them?

LR: Not necessarily. It is perfectly legitimate to decide that the better health gained from statins is worth the expense. But it does mean that we need to realize that prevention is not going to help reduce the growth of medical spending.

TL: Some people say, “Yes, but if one life is saved, it’s worth it.” Is there another way to think about the individual vs. the population question?

LR: That’s a choice people can make. But they might want to think about it a little differently. If you think about how many years of good health you can buy for a million dollars, studies show that some interventions buy a lot, others very few. For example, flu shots for the elderly buy a lot of years of good health, but annual Pap smears—as opposed to screening less often—buy very few. The comparison suggests that it’s important to make sure that we do the most effective things first, like the flu shots.

TL: But what about the studies that claim there are savings?

LR: Some studies claim savings but they are usually not just looking at medical costs and savings. You will see studies claiming that a preventive intervention saves five dollars for every one dollar spent. What they are doing is valuing every life saved at the future earnings of the person and including those dollars along with medical costs and savings.

TL: Is that valid?

LR: Not if the point at issue is whether prevention will reduce medical spending.

TL: Does self-management of a disease save money? It’s been promoted as a way to cut costs.

LR: Probably not. And I think it’s important to remember that some things that might reduce medical spending do so by increasing costs outside the medical sector, so they are a kind of cost shifting. This is often true of self-management, which can require considerable time, effort, and cost on the part of the patient, and the patient’s family and friends.

TL: Are people being misled about preventive care ?

LR: It’s so easy for people to misunderstand the issue. I hesitate to think that people who say preventive care saves money are deliberately misleading. I think most of them don’t understand it.

TL: What is cost effectiveness analysis?

LR: It projects the costs and health outcomes from different medical choices. It’s a way of comparing costs and health outcomes for different ways of dealing with a disease, such as preventing it before it happens or waiting until it happens and treating it.

TL: Is the term “cost effective” misused ?

LR: The term once meant cost savings, because it was used in situations where you were getting exactly the same result either way and just wanted the cheapest way to get that result. It still carries that connotation, but now we are looking for the most effective way to spend money. If it costs $5000 to save one year of life with smoking cessation programs, and $200,000 to save one year of life with statins, then we say smoking cessation is more cost effective than statins. But neither one saves money.

TL: What is the conflict between making such choices and marketing new products?

LR: If you make a new product, you want to sell it, but it may not be the most effective thing for peoples’ health, or the most important thing to spend money on. The conflict is between the seller and the health policy maker who wants to make sure that people’s health is well served.

TL: Are we spending our prevention dollars inappropriately?

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.