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Economic crash linked to 260,000 additional cancer deaths: Study

Researchers in England suggest expansions of universal healthcare could prevent spikes in cancer death during rocky economic times.

By
Stephen Feller
During economic downturns, people in employer-based healthcare systems lose their health insurance if they also lose their jobs -- which researchers say caused an increase in cancer death after the 2008 global economic crash, and could possibly be avoided with universal health coverage. Photo by Kuzma/Shutterstock
During economic downturns, people in employer-based healthcare systems lose their health insurance if they also lose their jobs -- which researchers say caused an increase in cancer death after the 2008 global economic crash, and could possibly be avoided with universal health coverage. Photo by Kuzma/Shutterstock

LONDON, May 26 (UPI) -- More than a quarter of a million additional people died of cancer after the global economic crash in 2008, possibly as direct fallout from unemployment and cuts to public healthcare spending, according to a recent analysis.

Researchers at Imperial College London link the increase in cancer deaths to people losing health insurance or access to care, suggesting universal health coverage could prevent such spikes during future economic downturns.

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Although the additional deaths cannot be directly blamed on the economic downturn, the review of 20 years of economic and health data shows a chronological correlation that is difficult to ignore, researchers say.

Doctors in the United States have advocated for single-payer, universal healthcare to guarantee services for people who need them, arguing that costs would go down and the population would get healthier.

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In the Imperial College London study, conducted with researchers from Harvard University and Oxford University, the researchers argue the loss of access to care in many employer-based and some publicly-funded systems led to the increase in deaths -- and that universal care could solve the problem.

"In countries without universal health coverage, access to health care can often be provided via an employment package," Dr. Rifat Atun, a professor at Harvard University, said in a press release. "Without employment, patients may be diagnosed late, and face poor or delayed treatment."

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For the study, published in The Lancet, researchers analyzed data collected between 1990 and 2010 by the World Bank and World Health Organization on breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men and colorectal cancers in men and women, as well as lung and pancreatic cancers, and on the relationship between unemployment, public health spending, universal healthcare and cancer mortality.

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The data -- covering more than 2.1 billion people in 79 countries -- revealed 263,221 more cancer deaths between 2008 and 2010, from the global economic crash to the doldrums of the recession that followed.

Overall, a 1 percent increase in unemployment was linked to 0.37 additional deaths per 100,000 people from the five types of cancer, and a 1 percent decrease in public healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP was linked to 0.0053 additional cancer deaths per 100,000 people.

Efficiency improvements in public care could help when spending is cut, though the researchers point to universal coverage as the most attractive way to keep access to care open regardless of employment or economic status.

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"Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide so understanding how economic changes affect cancer survival is crucial," said Dr. Mahiben Maruthappu, a researcher at Imperial College London. "We found that increased unemployment was associated with increased cancer mortality, but that universal health coverage protected against these effects. This was especially the case for treatable cancers including breast, prostate and colorectal cancer."

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