The cost to society for time off work after head and neck cancer

When people take time off work because of cancer, society loses their contribution to the economy. Our new study looks at different ways of valuing this contribution.

Most people with cancer take some time off work for treatment, recuperation and rehabilitation. As well as impacting on a person’s sense of identity and quality of life, this time away from work has implications for society, because each individual in the workforce contributes to the economy. This contribution to the economy is known as productivity. Estimating the productivity lost due to a disease can help with health care service planning and policy making.

This study estimated the productivity lost due to time off work and premature mortality from head and neck cancer in Ireland using two different methods. Both methods found that productivity losses following head and neck cancer are substantial, and are higher than seen in other cancers. For each working person diagnosed with head and neck cancer, the first method found that society loses on average €253,800, while the second approach found that on average society loses €6,800.

The two methods had very different results because they have different assumptions about what is included in lost productivity. For example, if someone retires early because of cancer, the first method includes a value for each year until they should have retired. In contrast, the second method only includes the time it takes until their position has been filled.

These contrasting results highlight that using different methods to estimate the impact of a disease on the economy can have very different results. At the moment, there is no consensus on the best method to use. Our research suggests that using both approaches, as we have done, is a good way of estimating  the range of the potential productivity losses.

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