Inflammatory bowel diseases, although they are uncommon and rarely fatal, typically present during the period of economically productive adult life. Patients may require extensive therapeutic intervention as a result of the chronic, relapsing nature of the diseases. Their medical management includes oral and topical 5-amino salicylic acid derivatives and corticosteroids, as well as antibiotics and immunosuppressive therapies. Assessing the cost-effectiveness of rival treatments requires valid, reliable global assessments of outcome which consider quality of life, as well as the usual clinical end-points. Macro-economic studies of the overall impact of inflammatory bowel disease on health care systems have so far been largely confined to North America, where the total annual US costs, both direct and indirect, incurred by the estimated 380 000-480 000 sufferers has been put at around US2bn. Drugs were estimated to account for only 10% of total costs, whereas surgery and hospitalization account for approximately half. Studies from Europe suggest that the proportion of patients with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis who are capable of full time work is 75% and 90%, respectively. However, whilst only a minority of inflammatory bowel disease patients suffer chronic ill health and their life expectancy is normal, obtaining life assurance may be problematic, suggesting a misconception that inflammatory bowel disease frequently results in a major impact on an individual's economic productivity.