This month in Health Affairs, Harvard researchers David Cutler, Michael Chernew and co-authors assessed the most significant health interventions that contributed to the 3.3-year life expectancy increase in the United States between 1990 and 2015. Their findings shouldn’t be too surprising. Public health interventions such as smoking reduction and seatbelt usage accounted for 44% of the increase, followed closely by innovative pharmaceuticals, which contributed to 35% of improvements. Medications’ contributions to life expectancy were nearly three times greater than all other medical interventions combined.

The study underscored the important role pharmaceuticals play in preventing leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. The authors urged policymakers to consider the “central role of medications overall in explaining reduced mortality.” Although not a direct comparison, a 2018 National Pharmaceutical Council and RTI International survey (described in one of our first GBTS e-newsletters) found similar results. That study compared biopharmaceutical interventions with surgical procedures, diagnostics and medical devices, rather than public health interventions, and also found that biopharmaceutical interventions drove the greater percentage of improvements.

Why it Matters: The Health Affairs study confirms a trend we’ve been observing as the country tackles the COVID-19 pandemic. While we know public health efforts like social distancing and mask-wearing are critical to overcoming the virus, a vaccine is an equal piece of the puzzle. This study affirms the health care system’s need to make strategic investments in biopharmaceutical intervention. As organizations, policymakers and patients assess where to spend limited health care dollars, we should aim to invest in interventions that produce the most “bang for our buck,” and medications provide that.