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The Relative Merits of Population-Based and Targeted Prevention Strategies


Address correspondence to: Donna M. Zulman, Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, University of Michigan, 6312 Medical Science Building I, 1150 W. Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-5604 (email:


Context: Preventive medicine has historically favored reducing a risk factor by a small amount in the entire population rather than by a large amount in high-risk individuals. The use of multivariable risk prediction tools, however, may affect the relative merits of this strategy.

Methods: This study uses risk factor data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III to simulate a population of more than 100 million Americans aged thirty or older with no history of CV disease. Three strategies that could affect CV events, CV mortality, and quality-adjusted life years were examined: (1) a population-based strategy that treats all individuals with a low- or moderate-intensity intervention (in which the low-intensity intervention represents a public health campaign with no demonstrable adverse effects), (2) a targeted strategy that treats individuals in the top 25 percent based on a single risk factor (LDL), and (3) a risk-targeted strategy that treats individuals in the top 25 percent based on overall CV risk (as predicted by a multivariable prediction tool). The efficiency of each strategy was compared while varying the intervention's intensity and associated adverse effects, and the accuracy of the risk prediction tool.

Findings: The LDL-targeted strategy and the low-intensity population-based strategy were comparable for CV events prevented over five years (0.79 million and 0.75 million, respectively), as were the risk-targeted strategy and moderate-intensity population-based strategy (1.56 million and 1.87 million, respectively). The risk-targeted strategy, however, was more efficient than the moderate-intensity population-based strategy (number needed to treat [NNT] 19 vs. 62). Incorporating a small degree of treatment-related adverse effects greatly magnified the relative advantages of the risk-targeted approach over other strategies. Reducing the accuracy of the prediction tool only modestly decreased this greater efficiency.

Conclusions: A population-based prevention strategy can be an excellent option if an intervention has almost no adverse effects. But if the intervention has even a small degree of disutility, a targeted approach using multivariable risk prediction can prevent more morbidity and mortality while treating many fewer people.