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What’s it worth? Estimating the impact of biomedical research

Did you know that for every pound invested in medical research, there is an annual return of 25p every year, forever?

It can be challenging to show the impact of research for patients and our economy, so we teamed up with a group of research funders as committed to demonstrating the value of medical research as we are. Together with the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Department of Health, the Medical Research Council, and Wellcome we commissioned a study that estimated the returns on public and charitable investment for musculoskeletal research in the UK. 

The results were published in the journal Health Research Policy and Systems. It was third in the 'What's it worth?' series of studies estimating the scale of economic returns from medical research in the UK. We’re proud to be a part of a publication series that demonstrates the importance of charities’ work to wider society.            

How the impact was measured?

The research team identified key research-based interventions that have led to reduced illness and death from musculoskeletal disease over a 20-year period. These ranged from new drug therapies for inflammatory arthritis to advice for people with back pain.

The overall value of health gain (‘net health gain’) from these interventions was estimated and set against the public and charity investment in the field. Finally, the value of activity stimulated by the original research investment, such as industry commercialising new products or investing in further research, was considered to generate the return on investment figure.

This analysis found health benefits of 7p, with a further 15-18p in benefits to the wider economy, every year. These figures can be compared to the return on investment for cardiovascular disease, mental health and cancer research, reported in previous ‘What’s it worth?’ studies.

Research impact in practice

Back pain is a major problem in the UK, estimated to make up 20% of total health spend and be responsible for almost 10 million lost work days in 2014. There are a range of treatments available for back pain but until recently it was unclear which patients would benefit most from which treatment.

We funded Professor Elaine Hay and her team at the Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre at Keele University to develop the STarT Back Tool, a short questionnaire that GPs can use to assess an individual’s risk factors for chronic back pain. The patient’s responses are used to categorise them as being of either low, medium or high risk of experiencing chronic pain, and guide further treatment.

The STarT Back tool led to a significant reduction in patient-reported disability, as well as cost savings to the NHS of £34 per patient, and wider societal cost savings of over £400 per patient due to reduced time off work. Itis now recommended by the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Department of Health National Spinal Taskforce, and the British Pain Society, among others.

What’s next?

Now we have great evidence to support continued investment in medical research we need to use it!  The funders of this research, led by Wellcome, have designed a top line briefing designed for policy-makers so that they can continue to advocate for medical research investment. We also want to make sure that the public can see the impact they are having on health and wellbeing. We plan to use the information for this project across a range of communications including researcher newsletters, marketing appeals and social media channels.

The ‘What’s it worth?’ series was produced by The Policy Institute at King’s College London and The Health Economics Research Group at Brunel University London.

Blog author: Dr Natalie Carter, Head of research liaison and evaluation, Arthritis Research UK