“What’s worse: Ebola or AIDS? Measles or malnutrition? Lung cancer or low back pain? As individuals, as a nation, and as a global community, where should we focus our time and money to improve lives the most?
“The way we usually answer these questions is to count the number of deaths: The more people killed, the more important the problem. Counting deaths is so familiar that few have thought to question it. But death toll alone says nothing about how long people live, and good health is much more than not being dead.
“Every year, for example, more than six million people worldwide die of stroke. Only about 300,000 people die worldwide of meningitis. So is stroke 20 times worse for humanity than meningitis? Not necessarily — because most people who die of stroke are age 75 or older, while those most likely to die of meningitis are infants. Death is an inevitability, but a death in very early childhood is a tragedy. All else being equal, saving the lives of infants should still be one of our global health systems’ top priorities.
“Now consider everything that doesn’t kill people. If you are blind or deaf, anxious or depressed, disabled, disfigured or simply sick, your pain does not show up in death records or life expectancy statistics. Yet nonfatal conditions are responsible for a majority of health spending — and of human suffering. Every time we see a doctor and don’t die afterward, we demonstrate the inadequacy of counting deaths to track health.”