What you'll learn

  • 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

Course description

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. Many government agencies and organizations around the world require benefit-cost analysis as a component in creating policies, ultimately supporting sound policy development.

During the COVID-19 epidemic, benefit-cost analysis has guided response efforts and related policies, giving it unprecedented attention in the public health field. 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 application, including its strengths and weaknesses. 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, improving your ability to evaluate, interpret, and use the results.

You will leave this program not only knowing how to effectively perform benefit-cost analyses, but you will also understand the foundational framework and the advantages of using this type of analysis.

Understanding Public Health 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 been used to help address one of the key challenges in pandemic response efforts – what is the extent to which saving lives should take precedence 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?


  • Program Director; Principal, Industrial Economics, Incorporated

Associated Schools

  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

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