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Will Your Doctor One Day Pay You?

New research shows that incentive-based health programs really do work

(Mike Kemp/Rubberball/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

There’s nothing as valuable as health—and patients pay medical providers plenty to cure their ailments. But what if your doctor paid you to develop healthy habits instead? The Washington Post’s Ariana Eunjung Cha reports on a new approach to healthcare: offering patients cold hard cash to get healthier.

The idea’s not new, Cha reports: healthcare providers increasingly offer cash bonuses to patients for things like adhering to an exercise plan. Now a new study shows that the incentives really do work. Researchers wanted to understand how financial incentives might affect participation in a smoking cessation program. So they recruited 2,538 CVS employees, and paid them to quit smoking. But they paid different groups in different ways.

They learned that when employees were told they’d be paid to quit smoking, 90 percent agreed to join. Six months later, between 9.4 and 16 percent of people who’d been offered cash were still cigarette-free, compared to just 6 percent of the group who wasn’t offered cash at all.

The researchers also tested a deposit-based model in which people were asked to deposit $150 to quit smoking (the sum would be refunded if they were still smoke-free in six months). Far fewer people signed up for the challenge (13.7 percent), but the number who succeeded six months later still surpassed the number of people who didn’t have money on the line (10.2 percent compared to 6 percent who weren’t offered cash). And in both cases, challenges that paid more when more participants stayed smoke-free were more successful than ones in which participants had to go it alone.

Cha reports that researchers are still trying to figure out what kinds of rewards are both affordable for healthcare providers and effective for patients. Given the costs of bad health habits (smoking alone racks up $170 billion in direct medical care costs per year), it could very well be worth it to pay patients to mend their ways now.

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