To improve people’s health, we ask them to change their behavior. Quit Smoking. Eat right. Lose Weight. Take a walk. Get your blood pressure checked. See a doctor. But, as many have noted, making a commitment to do the “right” thing is often easier than following through on that commitment. In fact, many of the nation’s health epidemics are linked to people doing the “wrong” thing despite their best intentions. Assuming that people want to feel good and live healthy, productive lives, how can we explain actions that unequivocally threaten that outcome? As a classically trained economist, I am sorry to say: Classical economics can’t give us an answer to that question. Wearing the hat of program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, I’m charged with searching, often in unexpected places, for pioneering ideas that have the potential to accelerate change and radically improve our health and the health care we receive. This quest has led the Pioneer Portfolio to the doorstep of behavioral economics.
Unlike classical economics, which assumes people act rationally and make choices in their best interest, behavioral economics does not assume that people behave in ways that maximize their income or long term happiness and wellbeing. Rather, behavioral economist study how various factors such as environment and psychology lead people to sub-optimal outcomes. Pioneer is seeking ideas from this field because we understand that, in addition to the social determinants of health that we cannot individually control, we are constantly making conscious and unconscious decisions that relate directly and indirectly to our health. We choose whether or not to take our medication. We select the foods we eat. We decide whether to take the stairs or go to the gym.
When we interact with the health care system, our health care providers make decisions that impact our understanding of our health condition and our treatment protocol. Doctors decide whether to use positive reinforcement or fear tactics to motivate a patient, encourage her to stop smoking, or ask her to get a test. Nurses choose whether to speak up during rounds and how to impart knowledge to a patient when he is discharged from the hospital. Insurers seek to influence our decisions with financial incentives related to choice of physician, care facility and frequency of interaction with the health system. The frequency of these decisions is important because when we – or our providers – make poor decisions, our chances for a long, healthy life are hurt.
The emerging field of behavioral economics is working to discover how people make decisions that can affect their health behaviors and health care, and how we can learn to guide people toward decisions that are in their best interest, even if they are hard, inconvenient or easy to forget. With this knowledge, policymakers and others can design environments, campaigns, messages and tools that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families and their communities.
That’s why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio has issued a call for proposals to identify promising experiments that apply the principles and methods of behavioral economics and choice theory to perplexing health and health care problems. By tapping into the behavioral economics community, we hope to uncover pioneering interventions and policies that will transform the way patients and providers make decisions that affect health for ourselves and our communities.
It is our hope that behavioral economists can help us learn how people think about their health and the decisions they make. Some research we fund will fail, but that’s okay–there will be critical lessons learned from these experiments. The successes and the failures will help to educate our work to transform health and health care for the better.
We’re seeking innovative ideas that apply the field’s principles and theories to perplexing health problems. We are particularly interested in supporting either experiments or secondary data analyses that test innovative solutions to the challenges of obesity and consumer engagement, but any problem can be addressed.
Do you have an idea of how behavioral economics can help change health and health care? Can you think of a health problem that can be transformed by learning more about how patients and providers make decisions about the care they give and receive? If you don’t plan to submit a proposal, leave a comment– I’d love to hear your pioneering ideas.
Register here for an informational web conference on October 19 at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will discuss and answer programmatic questions about Pioneer's new funding initiative, Applying Behavioral Economics to Perplexing Problems.