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Cleft Repair Surgery, Costing $250, Contributes up to $50,000 to Local Economy, According to New Study Featuring Smile Train

January 22, 2016

For as little as $250 committed toward one cleft repair surgery, as much as $50,000 is put back into the local economy as former cleft patients go on to contribute to economic productivity and lead full, productive lives in their communities, according to a new study featuring Smile Train that was published in the most recent edition of the World Journal of Surgery. This amounts to a more than 200x return on investment for a single cleft repair.

The total economic impact achieved as a result of Smile Train’s cleft repair surgeries globally—measured from 2001-2011 across 83 countries where Smile Train has a footprint—amounts to as much as $20 billion, according to the study.

“Investment in cleft lip and palate surgical repair has resulted in tremendous economic gain for low and middle-income countries, shining a light on the impact and cost-effectiveness of surgical interventions globally,” said Dr. Scott Corlew one of the study’s authors. “Cleft repair surgery significantly lowers a country’s surgical disease burden by allowing patients to return to economic productivity and meaningfully participate in their societies, creating a more prosperous and resilient global community.”

The independent study—Economic Valuation of the Global Burden of Cleft Disease Averted by a Large Cleft Charity—measures the economic impact of cleft repair surgery over a ten-year period and quantify the impact of its global surgical work. The study is one of the most comprehensive analyses to date into the economic and public health value of cleft lip and palate repairs in the developing world.

“Cleft is far more than a cosmetic problem—it impacts eating, breathing and speaking, leads to social isolation, and may prevent children from attending school and fully participating in their communities,” said Smile Train CEO Susannah Schaefer. “Cleft repair surgery costs as little as $250, and the impact is life-changing for entire regions as former patients have the opportunity to attend school, get a job, start a family and contribute to the society at large.”

The study finds that total productive life years regained globally as a result of cleft repair surgery—measured in averted disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)—is as high as 5 million (4.95M), equating to an average of nine years of productive life per person. Cleft palate repairs constituted about two-thirds of the averted global burden of disease, due to the greater disability associated with cleft palate. Cleft lip repairs constituted one-third of the averted disease burden.

“The findings reinforce the success of investing in building strong surgical infrastructures and scalable healthcare solutions in promoting the economic health of communities around the globe,” said Mackinnon Engen, Vice President of Programs, Smile Train. “By empowering surgeons in developing countries with the training and resources to perform cleft repair surgery in their own communities, Smile Train’s ‘teach a man to fish’ model has played a significant role in this effort. Investing in local surgical capacity has laid the groundwork for not only more resilient global healthcare systems, but also a healthier, more productive population and increased economic prosperity.”

“This study provides a critical framework for examining the significant economic value of global surgical interventions, paving the way for future studies that document the value and cost-effectiveness of investment in global surgical care,” said Corlew.

The study was conducted using data from 547,769 Smile Train patient records of primary cleft procedures. Fifty-eight percent of the records were cleft lip repairs, and 42 percent were cleft palate repairs. More information about the study and its methodology can be found here.




The World Journal of Surgery is the official journal of the International Society of Surgery (ISS). It provides an in-depth, international forum for the most current, most authoritative information on major clinical problems in the fields of clinical and experimental surgery, surgical education, and socioeconomic aspects of surgical care.


About Smile Train

Smile Train is an international children's charity with a sustainable approach to a single, solvable problem: cleft lip and palate. Millions of children in developing countries with unrepaired clefts live in shame, but more importantly, have difficulty eating, breathing and speaking. Cleft repair surgery is simple, and the transformation is immediate. Smile Train's sustainable model provides training and funding to empower local doctors in 85+ developing countries to provide 100%-free cleft repair surgery in their own communities. To learn more about how Smile Train's sustainable approach means donations have both an immediate and long-term impact, please visit smiletrain.org.

Press Contact:

Nijha Diggs