Public Opinion on Health Priorities: Obesity on the Rise and Cancer Prominent

Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Lobby (Annenberg Center)

Author(s): Melissa A Pittaoulis; Dr. Joseph Cook; Tara Symonds


Previous surveys have found that Americans considered cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and obesity as the leading health problems in the United States and that Americans’ ratings of the top ten very serious health problems generally did not correspond to the leading causes of death. We revisit this topic by presenting data from a survey of American adults that measured public opinion about the relative importance of health problems in terms of both seriousness and prioritization for research funding. We designed the survey to examine three questions: (1) What health problems do Americans consider to be most important? (2) How do Americans rate the relative seriousness of health problems? and (3) Which health problems do Americans believe should be prioritized for research funding?  The survey shows that there has been a sizeable shift in perceptions about obesity, which now rivals cancer and heart disease as a top concern. Nearly identical shares of respondents named obesity (45%) and cancer (44%) as one of the top health problems facing Americans.  Moreover, when respondents were asked to rate the relative seriousness of 80 different health problems, the three health problems considered “very serious” by the highest percentage of respondents were cancer (78% of respondents), heart disease (67%), and “people being overweight” (61%). To learn which health problems respondents believed should be prioritized for research funding, we included a Maximum Difference Scaling exercise in the survey. Maximum Difference Scaling—or MaxDiff—is a discrete choice technique that can be used for examining the relative importance of different items. Our study finds that while obesity and cancer are the top two health concerns, the MaxDiff analysis suggests that cancer research funding is by far considered a higher priority. Implications for these findings are discussed.