Advancing the application of systems thinking in health: why cure crowds out prevention

Health Res Policy Syst. 2014 Jun 16:12:28. doi: 10.1186/1478-4505-12-28.


Introduction: This paper presents a system dynamics computer simulation model to illustrate unintended consequences of apparently rational allocations to curative and preventive services.

Methods: A modeled population is subject to only two diseases. Disease A is a curable disease that can be shortened by curative care. Disease B is an instantly fatal but preventable disease. Curative care workers are financed by public spending and private fees to cure disease A. Non-personal, preventive services are delivered by public health workers supported solely by public spending to prevent disease B. Each type of worker tries to tilt the balance of government spending towards their interests. Their influence on the government is proportional to their accumulated revenue.

Results: The model demonstrates effects on lost disability-adjusted life years and costs over the course of several epidemics of each disease. Policy interventions are tested including: i) an outside donor rationally donates extra money to each type of disease precisely in proportion to the size of epidemics of each disease; ii) lobbying is eliminated; iii) fees for personal health services are eliminated; iv) the government continually rebalances the funding for prevention by ring-fencing it to protect it from lobbying.The model exhibits a "spend more get less" equilibrium in which higher revenue by the curative sector is used to influence government allocations away from prevention towards cure. Spending more on curing disease A leads paradoxically to a higher overall disease burden of unprevented cases of disease B. This paradoxical behavior of the model can be stopped by eliminating lobbying, eliminating fees for curative services, and ring-fencing public health funding.

Conclusions: We have created an artificial system as a laboratory to gain insights about the trade-offs between curative and preventive health allocations, and the effect of indicative policy interventions. The underlying dynamics of this artificial system resemble features of modern health systems where a self-perpetuating industry has grown up around disease-specific curative programs like HIV/AIDS or malaria. The model shows how the growth of curative care services can crowd both fiscal and policy space for the practice of population level prevention work, requiring dramatic interventions to overcome these trends.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Delivery of Health Care / economics
  • Financing, Organized
  • Health Care Rationing / economics
  • Health Expenditures
  • Health Policy / economics
  • Health Resources / economics
  • Health Resources / supply & distribution
  • Humans
  • Lobbying
  • Models, Economic
  • Preventive Medicine / economics*
  • Quality-Adjusted Life Years
  • Therapeutics / economics*