What Is Health Economics and Why Is It Important?

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Health economics is the examination of how to make health care more equitable, accessible, and affordable for all. Here’s what exactly that means and why it matters.

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Health care is one of the most important aspects of human life and well-being. The health care sector employs 14 percent of American workers, approximately 22 million people, according to the 2019 census [1]. In the US, where health insurance is often linked with an individual’s job, it is considered a source of sociopolitical tension because the nation spends more than other countries on health care but lacks better health outcomes [2]. 

Health economics seeks to examine the factors that influence the industry’s costs and quality of care. How do patients, health care providers, insurance companies, and the government influence how health care is distributed—and in what ways can it be improved?

What is health economics?

Health economics is an applied field of study that examines and finds systems-based solutions to make health care more equitable, accessible, and affordable for all. Health economists seek to understand the role that stakeholders (such as health care providers, patients, insurance companies, government agencies, corporations, and public organizations) play in health care spending.

Health economists are curious about what affects health outcomes. In their research, they’ll ask questions like [2]:

  • How do we put a value on health?

  • What factors influence health, besides health care?

  • What influences the supply and demand of health care? 

    • Behaviors of health care providers vs. those seeking care

  • What are some alternative approaches to health care production and delivery?

  • How can we improve the ways in which we plan, budget, and monitor health care?

Example of health economics in the real world

According to Harvard Medical School faculty, health care economics can be approached from six key areas: spending growth, role of the patient, role of the health care provider, risk and insurance impact, benefits design, and payment reform [3]. 

Taking the concept of payment reform as an example, doctors can be compensated in different ways than traditionally existed. In recent years, value-based care models such as episode-based payment, fee-for-service, and population-based payment models are contributing to more equitable health care. Payment reform affects health care providers, insurance companies, and patients. 

Quality over quantity

Value-based care focuses on health care being delivered on the basis of quality over quantity. It is driven by data because providers report specific metrics like hospital or clinic readmissions, patient engagement, and more, to demonstrate health improvement [4].

The Value-Based Care specialization from the University of Houston provides an applied learning experience to understand this area of health economics deeply.

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Why is health economics important?

Health economics is important because it focuses on how the economic behavior of stakeholders and recipients affects the quality and cost of medical care. It includes how people pay for care, how those payments are processed, and how health systems around the world can be restructured and improved. Tackling any systemic issue at the root cause can alleviate the same problems from arising again.

In examining the questions listed above, health economists address global issues such as migration and displacement, climate change, pandemics and vaccine access, disorders, obesity, and more. They apply economic theories to inform both the public and private sectors on cost-effective solutions to improve equity in health care.

For example, a health economist might research disparities in quality of health and income in West Africa by evaluating the price of health care and insurance in the region. Potential solutions include employing digital technologies to provide health care directly through a mobile phone or laptop. 

Similar to public health and population health, approaching society’s health and well-being from a bird’s-eye macro perspective as well as drilling down to research specific populations can have a positive impact. Health economics can deliver insights that inform solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues surrounding health care and well-being.

Read more: What Can You Do with a Master’s in Public Health (MPH)?

Who should study health economics?

Understanding how economic behavior factors into health and health care decisions can be beneficial for anyone interested in this field. However, the following groups of individuals may benefit most from the study health economics:

  • Medical providers: Doctors, nurses, and assistants can evaluate new treatments, technologies, and services to determine ways to deliver value-based care. Medical providers benefit from understanding the economics behind these developments.

  • Administrators: Health care administrators process insurance copayments and manage financial metrics for health care providers. Learning the intricacies of health care economics can provide the necessary context as they liaise with insurance providers and use new technologies to process payments.

  • Policymakers or public health officials: Those who are in charge of policy decisions at the local, state, federal, or international levels benefit from understanding the economic relationship between stakeholders and the general public.

  • Business leaders: Because many Americans receive private insurance, health care becomes a major expense for employers. Business leaders must understand the health economics outlook to appease their employees, shareholders, and even their customers.

Health economics with Coursera

Dive into the exciting field of health economics and contribute to the future of health care. Consider enrolling in The Economics of Health Care Delivery from the University of Pennsylvania, as part of the Business of Health Care specialization offered in partnership with Wharton and Penn Medicine. You’ll learn experts in business acumen, health care management, and health care policy to develop the skills you’ll need to successfully navigate the quickly evolving landscape of this fast-growing field.

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The Business of Health Care

Advance your career in health care management. Develop business skills and understand the American health care system to improve cost and quality.

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Article sources

1

US Census Bureau. “Who Are Our Health Care Workers?, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/04/who-are-our-health-care-workers.html.” Accessed September 30, 2022. 

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