Scientists determine standards for gauging cost, benefits of prevention programs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Society for Prevention Research released a new set of standards to guide how researchers and public health officials estimate the costs, benefits and return on investment of health and social service prevention programs, based on the work by a taskforce co-chaired by a Penn State researcher.

The standards are summarized in a manuscript in the journal Prevention Science.

One standard focuses on estimating costs and benefits of developing an infrastructure for prevention. For example, while there is an emergency room for emergency medicine, no such infrastructure exists specifically for prevention medicine, according to Max Crowley, assistant professor of human development and family studies and co-chair of the taskforce.

Additionally, prevention efforts sometimes "piggyback" on schools, but schools are often under-resourced, he said. These standards provide guidelines on estimating the cost of infrastructure needed for prevention programs. 

"By following these standards, scientists can provide policymakers and practitioners the information they need to help more people. These standards aim to better help both patients and communities," Crowley said.

To come up with the standards, the taskforce engaged in outreach with a wide array of professional organizations and researchers to build consensus around standards for conducting rigorous and replicable estimates of the value of preventive interventions. The standards were designed to support the development of high-quality and high-utility economic estimates that can be used for public budgeting.

These standards were developed through the Society for Prevention Research's Mapping Advances in Prevention Science initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This initiative formed a taskforce of leading experts in prevention science, public finance and policy with the goal of identifying best practices to understand the economic impact of investments in prevention.

The taskforce convened in light of increasing evidence that prevention is not only a good investment, but may be more cost‐effective then downstream treatment for a number of societal problems.

"Prevention science is an interdisciplinary field that touches on nearly every domain of public and private life," Crowley said. "These standards provide guidance for the scientific community to conduct research that not only meets the pressing needs of our society, but can be used to guide how we invest limited public resources."

Kenneth Dodge, Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, co-chaired the taskforce with Crowley.

Ultimately, the task force hopes these estimates will lead to more effective and efficient interventions that improve health and wellbeing for all.