Probiotic use could reduce healthcare costs for flu-like illnesses

General probiotic use could save the U.S. economy and healthcare payers about $1.4 billion in medical bills and lost productivity due to acute respiratory tract infections (RTIs), according to a new study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology.

RTIs include influenza-like illnesses (ILIs) with symptoms ranging from mild cold to the more serious flu. Although most acute RTI episodes resolve on their own, RTIs result in a high number of doctor visits and pose a heavy burden on society and the healthcare system, according to the study.

The systematic reviews by York Health Economics Consortium (YHEC) and Cochrane Collaborative reported probiotics use was associated with reduced number and duration of ILIs, antibiotic courses used and days absent from work.

The authors, led by Irene Lenoir-Wijnkoop, PhD, first author of the study, and Daniel Tancredi, PhD, co-author of the study, developed an economic model to estimate the cost savings of general use of probiotics in the U.S. They created a simulation reproducing a population representative of the national demographics. They tailored the model to account for age, vaccination status, smoking status, and time spent in shared indoor environments, such as daycare for children or shared offices for adult workers.

They estimated the number of ILI cases, the duration of illness, the costs associated with doctor visits, and the number of days missed from school or work. For these estimates, they used the 2017-18 Influenza Season of FluView from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national databases.

The researchers modeled the illness experience for the simulated population under two scenarios, one where everyone uses probiotics and one where no one does. They did a simulated model based on the Cochrane Collaborative review and another based on the YHEC review. The Cochrane review accounted for reductions both in number of episodes of RTIs and disease duration, allowing for the estimation of the cost savings associated with fewer doctor visits. The YHEC review could only quantify savings associated with fewer sick days due to RTI.

In the Cochrane scenario, the analysis showed that if everyone in the U.S. took probiotics, healthcare payers would save $373 million in RTI-associated medical bills in one year. These savings include the cost of more than two million courses of antibiotic prescriptions averted and correspond to a decrease of 54.5 million sick days. When counting the savings from reduced productivity loss of 4.2 million workdays, the total savings for society would amount to $1.4 billion. In the YHEC scenario, generalized probiotic use could save $784 million per year for averted productivity loss related to absence from work due to illness.

"Although flu-like illnesses usually resolve on their own after one or two weeks, there is great benefit in reducing ILI incidence and duration," said Lenoir-Wijnkoop. "Less sickness means reduced suffering and significant cost savings from healthcare expenses and sick absences."