The report, commissioned by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust and Academy of Medical Sciences, focused on the returns from UK investment into research in cardiovascular disease and mental health. It found that, for each pound invested in cardiovascular disease research by the taxpayer or charity donor, there was a stream of benefits equivalent to earning 39 pence each year forever.
Mental health research generated benefits equivalent to 37 pence per pound invested each year forever. The study also found that public and charitable funding of medical research encouraged greater investment from the pharmaceutical industry.
The year-long study focused on results of investment in research from 1975-1992. It was carried out by a consortium involving the Health Economics Research Group at Brunel University, the Office of Health Economics and the market analysts RAND Europe. The research involved the development of a methodology to calculate the health and GDP (gross domestic product) gains from investing in medical research.
The research was led by Martin Buxton from the Health Economics Research Group, who said, “Estimating the returns on investment in medical research is notoriously difficult. This is partly due to the time it takes for research to filter into measurable health benefits. We looked at the value of health gains, once the cost of healthcare had been taken into account, and gains to GDP from medical research.”
“Our aim was to generate realistic estimates of the economic impacts of medical research,” said Buxton. “The methodology we came up with should help to assess the returns for different disease areas. However, this was never intended as a one-off exercise, and we hope our results will stimulate more work in this important but neglected area of research.”
The study showed that there is a time lag between research expenditure and eventual health benefits of approximately 17 years. It also showed that reducing this time lag would improve economic returns. The study has raised further questions, including whether returns on investment differ outside of the time frame studied, or whether returns remain the same, increase or differ depending on the area of research funded.
Data were gathered from UK research funders, including the MRC, Department of Health and Wellcome Trust, to work out total investment in the two chosen disease areas. Evidence-based clinical guidelines, from NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), were used to estimate the UK’s research contribution to interventions in these fields.
In total, 46 different interventions to treat or prevent cardiovascular disease were analysed, for example aspirin, beta blockers and smoking cessation, while the study for mental health used evidence on six such combinations. Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY), estimated by NICE to be worth around GBP25,000 each, were used to measure the quantity and quality of life gained from a health intervention.
Martin Roland, the chair of the UK Evaluation Forum Working Group said, “This work will now help us to ask many more searching questions about the areas in which we invest in medical research. It throws into relief the wider importance of investment in medical research for economic growth as well as for social and health benefit.”
Jon Sussex, Deputy Director at the Office of Health Economics added: “In addition to ways of improving people’s length and quality of life, medical research benefits the UK economy. The UK is richer as a result of medical research, as well as healthier.”
The findings demonstrate how important the time lag between basic research and health gain is. The quicker research is translated from bench to bedside, the greater the rate of return, providing empirical support increasing funding for translational research.