How the 2008 financial crisis caused an increase in cancer deaths

    1 June 2016

    The financial crisis of 2008 is responsible for over 260,000 excess cancer deaths (including many that were avoidable) according to a new study published in The Lancet.

    The joint study, by researchers at Harvard, Imperial College London and Oxford University, only looked at countries within the Organization for Economic Development. They also found that the excess cancer burden was reduced in countries that increased health spending during the study period, and in those with universal health coverage.

    Rifat Atun, the study’s senior author, said: ‘Higher unemployment due to economic crisis and austerity measures is associated with higher number of cancer deaths. Universal health coverage protects against these deaths. That there are needless deaths is a major societal concern.’

    Atun also said that job losses during the financial crisis limited access to healthcare, causing delays in treatment and a higher than normal level of late diagnoses.

    The study’s lead author, Mahiben Maruthappu, said: ‘Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide so understanding how economic changes affect cancer survival is crucial. We also found that public healthcare spending was tightly associated with cancer mortality – suggesting healthcare cuts could cost lives.’

    Instant analysis

    It seems that politicians can play fast and loose when talking about the implications of economic downturns and austerity, but rarely look at the possible health implications. This study looked at the link between unemployment, public spending on health care and cancer deaths using data over 20 years from 1990 to 2010, from 70 high and middle-income countries around the globe. It found that the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent rise in unemployment, was associated with over 260,000 excess cancer-related deaths including a number that should be readily treatable. 

    Interestingly, this effect seemed to be lessened in countries with universal health coverage, and in those that increased spending on health care.

    So, what should we make of this finding? One point to make is that it is a limited study, as countries such as China and India were barely represented, and no clear causality link has been demonstrated. However, the link between changes to employment status and cancer mortality is genuinely interesting, as is the fact that increasing public sector health spending appears to lessen the negative health impact of unemployment. One obvious conclusion to make is that in many countries, unemployment can limit health care access and so lead to delays in cancer diagnosis and reduced treatment effectiveness.

    This doesn’t really tell us anything new – we have known for years that low income and unemployment is bad for your health – but the link with cancer is an interesting one, and will further add to the argument that adequate funding of whatever health care system a country chooses to adopt is crucial to the health of that country.

    Score 3/5