Can Our Positive Health Assets Cut Health Costs?

Dec 12, 2013, 12:30 PM, Posted by

A female patient gets an allergy checkup in a doctor's office.

By Eric Kim

What if scientists could develop simple, low cost interventions that enhance health and reduce healthcare costs? What if these interventions also increased psychological well-being and were inherently enjoyable for people to perform? These questions are particularly relevant now, as we are constantly reminded of our nation’s rising healthcare costs.

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of scientists has been investigating the idea of positive health. Health is often characterized as the mere absence of disease or infirmity. However, is there something higher we can aspire towards? To help address this question, our team is mapping what superior health might look like by researching positive health assets—factors that produce longer life, lower morbidity, lower health care expenditure, better prognosis when illness does strike, and/or higher quality of physical health, over and above the usual suspect risk factors.

Our studies show that various facets of psychological well-being (e.g., optimism and purpose in life) foreshadow better health, healthier behaviors and longer life. However, to the best of our knowledge, the link between any positive psychological health asset and health care use has never before been examined. We inspected this gap and found that life satisfaction (sometimes called happiness) predicts fewer doctor visits. This association lasts even after statistically adjusting for a large array of possible confounders such as baseline health. Now we know we need further exploration into these connections.

This discovery is exciting because factors like life satisfaction can be bolstered through simple yet effective interventions. In fact, several small-scale interventions (e.g., online exercises, writing interventions and meditation) have been shown to reliably and meaningfully raise factors like life satisfaction. Building on epidemiological studies linking psychological well-being and health, researchers have conducted rigorous randomized controlled trials that aimed to induce positive emotions. Results from these studies show that inducing positive emotions substantially improves people’s medication adherence and also increases physical activity.

A robust and growing body of observational studies show that psychological well-being predicts better health. Some experimental studies have even shown that raising certain dimensions of psychological well-being can enhance health behaviors. What might happen if we continue leveraging existing interventions that raise psychological well-being and track not only health behaviors, but also health outcomes and healthcare costs? Such studies haven’t yet been done. However, further positive health research may reveal innovative, and low cost ways of simultaneously improving our health and containing our nation’s rising healthcare costs.

Eric Kim is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. He sees his research as a triangle, with the corners anchored in aging, psychological well-being, and physical health. He aims to continuously revisit and bridge these areas. He also strives to bring new insights to old problems by using advanced statistical techniques.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.