Why Integrating Health and Education Matters for Economics

February 06, 2014

Advancing the economic and equity case for closer integration of health and education.

We were thrilled recently to share an update on HSC’s efforts as part of the Working Group on Health and Education as this work transitions to a new phase in the year ahead. This Working Group, convened by former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin at HSC’s recommendation, has focused on ways that our health and education systems can work together to help close the achievement gap and reverse the trends that, unless we make some significant changes, will lead today’s children to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents.

HSC President and CEO Rochelle Davis served as co-chair of the Working Group with Jeff Levi, chair of the Prevention Advisory Group and executive director of the Trust for America's Health. The former Surgeon General charged this group with a set of tasks that, in essence, mean changing our nation’s paradigm around school health. The Working Group took this charge to heart and has recommended a set of priorities for moving forward, including a proposal to form a National Collaborative on Health and Education.

As the new year begins, we invite you to join us in thinking through some of the key issues that the Working Group has identified.

One of the most far-reaching questions the Working Group began to explore is: How can stakeholders advance the economic and equity case for closer integration of health and education?

In order to make the type of broad and large-scale change we need for health and education to be truly integrated, we need to help leaders in multiple sectors — government, private business, philanthropy, even other advocates — see the huge long-term implications this work has for our society as a whole.

We recently looked at the part of this question focused on equity. 

Today we’ll look at another part of the question, focused on the economic benefits of more fully integrating health and education.

Plentiful research supports the idea that it simply makes good economic sense to integrate health and wellness into the school experience. This includes initiatives that help prevent chronic illness in the long term, things like physical activity and nutrition education. It also means addressing medical concerns and managing chronic diseases (such as asthma or diabetes) that students face in a way that allows students to stay in class and focus on learning.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently released an excellent brief report summarizing the recent research on the economic benefits of programs that promote health in just these ways. You can see the full report here.

The report authors explain: “Creating a culture of health in the United States requires a commitment to prevention. Preventing disease and injury is the most cost-effective, common-sense way to improve health. . . A variety of recent reports and studies show that strategic investments in proven, community-based prevention programs save lives and money.”

One of the most interesting and relevant findings highlighted in the report is a study from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showing that an investment of $10 per person annually in proven, community-based public health programs could save more than $16 billion within five years — a $5.60 return for every dollar invested. The report focused on community-based disease prevention programs that do not require medical care, the type of programs that we are advocating for in schools.

The report also includes research showing that a combination of three strategies – expanding health insurance coverage, delivering better preventive and chronic care, and focusing on community prevention — is more effective at saving lives and money than any one of these strategies alone. As our nation seeks to significantly expand health insurance coverage, we can best leverage this investment by ensuring it is complemented by appropriate health-promoting programs in schools and community.

As former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said in her charge to the Working Group, “Health does not occur in the doctor’s office and hospitals only. Health also occurs where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we pray. . . . Schools must support health — from assuring that children can be physically active and eat nourishing food, can learn in buildings with healthy air and fresh water, and, when needed, can provide access to health care.”

Schools can play a key role in effectively delivering the type of programs and services that promote health and prevent disease outside the traditional medical setting. Creating the conditions for health in schools and equipping students with the knowledge and skills to live healthy lives means that many of these students will be spared from preventable long-term illness. In addition to the tremendous benefits for students’ well-being and learning, this also means that the health system will not incur the cost of medical treatment for these preventable diseases.

Schools are also a key place for students to receive medical services that can help manage health issues, both immediate concerns such as an accident or the flu and chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes or hearing problems. Through school nurses or a school-based health center, students can receive efficient, cost-effective treatment for these concerns and then return to class. They can also be connected with resources for follow-up care that they may otherwise not have accessed.

Schools serve as centers of community, one place where nearly all children and families are already connected and can therefore be readily linked with resources to support their health and well-being. This brings real benefits in improved health and education outcomes for the students and overall cost savings for families and for the health system as a whole.

Integrating health into the education experience is good for children’s health, good for learning and, research shows, makes good economic sense as well. Ultimately, our ability to effectively share this knowledge with leaders across multiple sectors will shape our ability to make the broad and lasting changes we need for school wellness.