Study: Medical Research Reduces Deaths in Areas Where it is Created

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Rebecca McKibbin, Lecturer, University of Sydney

A new study provides a novel way of showing that medical research does indeed save lives, starting in the local communities where it is produced.

Researchers analyzed whether publication of scientific studies related to specific diseases reduced mortality rates for each disease in regions in which the research took place. These studies might describe new treatments or other ways of managing diseases that could benefit patients and add years to their lives.

The results showed that a 1% increase in publications on a specific disease produced by local researchers reduces the mortality rate for that disease in the area by 0.35%. That reduction occurred in the first five years following the publication of the research.

“The idea is that physicians who are in the same geographical area as the developers of a new medical idea are more likely to be early adopters of that idea,” said study coauthor Rebecca McKibbin, who is a lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Our findings provide a way to measure how much biomedical research directly impacts life expectancy. …Physicians and other healthcare providers hear about the idea first through local networks, which means they put the ideas into practice sooner. That gives a health advantage to people with that disease in locations where research is conducted.”

McKibbin, who began the work while visiting The Ohio State University, conducted the study with Bruce Weinberg, professor of economics at Ohio State. Their study appears as a working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not yet been peer reviewed.

Beyond finding a link between medical publications and lowered mortality, the researchers found that the link between health and research had an upstream effect in terms of an increase in funding of medical research linked to fewer deaths in the region. In that case, a 1% increase in local funding for research on a particular disease reduced local mortality from that disease by 0.22%.

Funding of scientific studies had significant links to lower mortality that appear to run through publications, Weinberg said. “This is not a small rate of return,” he noted. “The results provide additional evidence that funding medical research is a good investment.”

To establish a causal link between research and health, the researchers looked at changes in funding of biomedical research to measure the impact of new findings on mortality rates. Here they looked at grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to researchers investigating specific diseases. Here again, grants to researchers in a specific community helped reduce mortality in that area in the following years for diseases that they were studying.

Finally, the researchers looked at a single sharp “shock” to medical research funding that occurred with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed into law in 2009. The ARRA increased the NIH budget by $8 billion in 2009 and 2010. “This funding represents an unexpected windfall to the area to study a particular disease,” Weinberg said. “We found that it also was linked to reduced mortality in the diseases it targeted.”

Edited by Gary Cramer