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On Tuesday, November 13, 2001

PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARD HEALTH CARE PROBLEMS
CHANGE DRAMATICALLY AS A RESULT OF SEPTEMBER 11


Polls Show Health Care Policy Issues Now A Lower Priority;
Americans Become Concerned About Health Care Problems Resulting From Bioterrorism

Washington, D.C. - Public attitudes toward health and American health care priorities have changed dramatically as a result of the events following the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to a new paper that appears November 13 on the journal Health Affairs Web site, healthaffairs.org. Recent polls conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harris Interactive show that as of mid-October only 3 percent of Americans believed health care was one of the two most important issues for the government to address. That is a sharp drop from the 14 percent of Americans who cited health care as a priority issue last August.

Before the September 11 attacks, education reforms, the economy, and health care gaps were among the top-tier issues the public wanted the federal government to address. By mid-October, Americans' attitude shifted. Nearly two thirds of the public wanted the government to deal with terrorism; 45 percent wanted attention focused on the war and defense, and 22 percent thought the economy and jobs were among the most important issues. Education and health care, once high ranked domestic issues, drew one-third to one-fifth of the interest that they did in August 2001.

"The terrorist attacks are the kind of historical events that lead to major shifts in public opinion. Everything that Americans were thinking about in August have taken on a much lower importance," says Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

The findings were derived from a series of polls conducted last May and August and as recent as mid-October and early November by Harris Interactive Poll and by the Harvard School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and International Communications Research. The Harvard poll was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Harris polls in August and October 2001 involved more than 1,000 people each. Each of the questions in the Harvard-related polls were asked of about 500 people.

Blendon and his colleagues conducted the study as a follow-up to one that appears in the November/December print edition of Health Affairs. That study, conducted prior to September, summarizes recent surveys of Americans' health priorities. The study found that before September 11, Americans were most concerned about cancer, HIV/AIDS, and heart disease. In addition, Americans' number one health priority for government action was medical research to treat and cure those and other diseases.

This updated survey, designed to examine the impact of the September 11 tragedy and the bioterrorist attacks that followed, finds that Americans still view these conditions as the most important health problems. But they are also worried about health problems resulting from terrorist attacks. "People are more worried about illnesses than they were before," says Blendon. "What you have is people under stress, spending more time talking about diseases and worried about disease."

Health care policy issues have clearly taken on less import. The cost of health care, the cost of prescription drugs, and too many uninsured topped the list of health care problems in August 2001. Last August, for example, more than a third of Americans were worried about health costs. By early November, only 12 percent perceived it as an important issue. Lack of health coverage for nearly 40 million Americans worried nearly a quarter of Americans last May. By early November, only 8 percent of the public said this was a major problem. In May 2001, 15 percent of the public said prescription drug costs were a major health problem. By early November, only 6 percent did.

Although Blendon acknowledges that public attitudes could shift depending on events, he says these findings imply that medical research will continue to be a top priority for Americans, both for chronic problems as well as bioterrorist-related diseases such as anthrax or smallpox. Concerns with bioterrorism could lead to "significant public support" for initiatives to improve the public health system, the authors predict.

Health care issues that were on Congress' agenda prior to September 11, such as Medicare reform and the patients' bill of rights, will probably not get as much attention or support right now, Blendon says. Bioterrorism and the war are what most people are thinking about. At least for the short term "health care policy issues are not going to be very high on the American public's agenda," he predicts

Health Affairs, published by Project HOPE, is a bimonthly, multidisciplinary journal devoted to publishing the leading edge in health policy thought and research. Copies of the journal are available free to members of the press; address inquiries to Jackie Graves at Health Affairs, 301-656-7401, ext. 255, or via e-mail, press@healthaffairs.org. "American's Health Priorities Revised After September 11," a Health Affairs exclusive, is available only on the journal's Web site, www.healthaffairs.org. The pre-September 11 Blendon study is also available on the site at no charge.

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