Benefit-Cost Analysis: Valuing Life and Health

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Online Program Overview

Promoting Evidence-Based Environmental, Health, And Safety Policies

Benefit-cost analysis is a well-established and widely used approach for systematically assessing the impacts of environmental, health, and safety policies and informing decisions. It is a required component of the policy development process followed by many government agencies and organizations around the world.

During the COVID-19 epidemic, benefit-cost analysis has received unprecedented attention, as it often informs response efforts and related policies. However, this attention has highlighted confusion about the overall framework, its advantages and limitations, and the approaches used to value mortality risk reductions, commonly referred to as the value per statistical life (VSL). Understanding the appropriate use of benefit-cost analysis and its implications is crucial given the importance of promoting evidence-based decisions.

In this short online program, Lisa A. Robinson, a leading Harvard expert on benefit-cost analysis, will aid you in understanding the benefit-cost analysis framework and its application globally. You will learn the methods used for valuing changes in health and longevity, the values recommended for use in high-, middle-, and low-income settings, and the implications of the results. Through interactive presentations and extensive discussion, you will develop a deeper understanding of these approaches and of their application.

You will leave this program understanding the advantages and limitations of benefit-cost analysis, improving your ability to evaluate, interpret, and use the results.

Understanding Policy Trade-Offs: Are the Benefits Worth the Costs?

Benefit-cost analysis estimates the positive and negative impacts of a policy, clarifying the trade-offs implicit in the policy decision. As COVID-19 rages across the globe, benefit-cost analysis has emphasized the core challenge – determining the extent to which saving lives should take precedent over avoiding severe economic damages.

Benefit-cost analysis, which is also known as cost-benefit analysis or return on investment analysis, is used in many other contexts to evaluate environmental, health, and safety policies. For example, it has played a major role in developing air pollution policies, motor vehicle safety regulations, smoking restrictions, and food safety requirements. In each case, benefit-cost analysis addresses the central question: are the benefits provided worth the costs incurred?


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the fundamental concepts that underlie benefit-cost analysis and its advantages and limitations
  • Identify the major components of a benefit-cost analysis and what each should include
  • Increase familiarity with methods for valuing health and longevity, including revealed- and stated-preference studies
  • Learn about sources of guidance, including default values


Major topics to be covered in the course will include:

  • Benefit-Cost Analysis Framework
    • Conceptual foundation
    • Individual preferences and willingness to pay
    • Aggregate social welfare and distributional equity
    • Components and steps of this method
  • Valuing Longevity
    • Value per statistical life (VSL) concept
    • Market and nonmarket valuation methods
      • Human capital
      • Revealed and stated preferences
      • Benefits transfer
    • Guidance and recommended values
  • Valuing Health
    • Value per statistical case (VSC) concept
    • Available valuation studies
    • Proxy methods
      • Averted costs (direct and indirect cost of illness)
      • Monetized quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) and disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)

Credits and Logistics

Continuing Education Credit

All participants will receive a Certificate of Participation upon completion of the program.

Who Should Participate

This course is designed for practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders who want to increase their understanding of benefit-cost analysis and its application to environmental, health, and safety policies globally, and already have some familiarity with approaches for economic evaluation.

Examples of participants include:

  • Economists who conduct benefit-cost analyses
  • Managers who commission and review benefit-cost analyses
  • Researchers who contribute inputs to these analyses, such as estimates of deaths averted or technology effectiveness
  • Stakeholders who participate in the policymaking process, such as interest group representatives and congressional staff

This program addresses policies to be implemented in high-, middle-, and low-income countries that focus on public health, making it valuable for participants across the globe. Potential participants will come from a range of employer types, including government agencies, foundations, universities, non-profits, and other health-focused organizations.