The benefits of investing in better health: Insights from our new study

“I always thought I’d be a medical doctor,” says Jaana Remes, a Finnish economist and partner who leads research at the McKinsey Global Institute. Her mother was a pediatrician, and Jaana studied biology and always assumed she’d follow in her mom’s footsteps—until she fell in love with economics as a high-school student in New Mexico. Thirty years later, with the launch of MGI’s first research focused on healthcare, she laughs, “I’ve returned to the topic!”

Prioritizing health: A prescription for prosperity spans 200 countries, looks forward two decades, and analyzes 52 diseases to quantify the economic and social benefits that can be gained if governments and the private sector make good health a priority.

To learn more about the findings, we talked to Jaana, who led the team with Katherine Linzer, a partner in our Healthcare Practice who focuses on Medicaid programs in the United States and the role of behavioral care in health.

What are the important takeaways from this report?

Jaana Remes: We always knew that healthy lifestyles were important, but for the first time, we have been able to quantify how important: What is it worth to the economy when you take care of your people?

We found that if we use interventions we already know, we could reduce our disease burden by about 40 percent over the next 20 years and extend active middle age by ten years.

In a first, MGI quantifies the value of good health: Meet the authors
Left, Jaana Remes, partner, McKinsey Global Institute, and Katherine Linzer, partner, McKinsey Healthcare Practice
In a first, MGI quantifies the value of good health: Meet the authors

Interventions can include behavioral change; environmental improvements such as ensuring clean water; preventive medicine such as vaccines; and therapeutic interventions such as treating diseases with known therapies.

And it doesn’t have to cost a lot. With a healthier workforce and the expanded capacity of the elderly, we could see an economic return of $2 to $4 for each $1 invested in better health.

So, the good news is that we have a lot of the answers to better health already—we just have to make the commitment.

How has COVID-19, the biggest health crisis in generations, changed the way we see the research?

Katherine Linzer: It creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity as countries look to rebuild their health and their economies.

The pandemic has hurt people with underlying health conditions and disproportionately affected communities that struggle with access to healthcare and other social supports. Our research shows that these are exactly the people who need our help to strengthen their resilience so that we all can be more prepared for the other crises coming our way, such as heat waves due to climate change.

Were you surprised by any of the findings?

Jaana: Yes! We often think that the greatest challenge to health is aging. But in fact we found that ill health significantly affects people below the age of 70—with migraines, diabetes, depression, heart disease—making people miserable in their prime years. If we were to implement the recommended changes for preventative care and disease treatment, the average 65-year-old in 2040 could be as healthy as a 55-year-old today.

Innovations in healthcare could reduce the disease burden by up to 10 percent. Which new technologies are you excited about?

Jaana: During the pandemic, the use of telemedicine and video consultations have dramatically increased so that patients can receive remote diagnoses and do more self-care, managing their own treatment. We have seen devices and apps that allow for real-time data gathering several times a day, that feed into an analytics model and can be visualized through a dashboard. A single operator can look across a spectrum of local patients and instantly know who needs immediate care and send an ambulance. These sorts of technologies are being adapted faster due to COVID-19 and offer tremendous promise.

Katherine: I’m also personally excited about the broader set of digital health technologies that can change the way that we treat our long-term care population—including those with chronic physical and mental health conditions—improving their safety, quality, and experience of care.

Prioritizing health: A prescription for prosperity

Prioritizing health: A prescription for prosperity

The report concludes with four big-picture recommendations, such as transforming healthcare. What happens next?

Katherine: Collaboration is the first thing. We want to attract leaders outside healthcare—employers, innovators, investors, and our broader communities—to share the mindset that good health is an investment not a cost and to want to take an active role in innovation, inclusion, and collaboration. We need more—and different types of—minds thinking in different ways and working to support our communities. This is especially true as we try to get back on our feet in the wake of COVID-19.

Jaana: There is a role for employers here—they have done a lot to improve safety for their factory workers. Now the challenge is taking care of their knowledge workers, which statistics show are struggling with an increase in anxiety, back pain, depression, and other mental-health issues. There is a lot of appetite in the healthcare industry to share responsibility for the well-being of people within the social and private sectors—and companies are definitely part of the solution.

Any closing thoughts?

Jaana:What makes me really excited is the thought that we could add ten years to the active midlife with what we know. Imagine how much quality of life we could all get in that time—contributing to your work, enjoying your family, and doing what you love.

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