The prospect of a long, healthy life is fulfilling in and of itself, but sometimes we can’t help wanting just a little bit more, a new study published in the American Journal of Managed Care shows.
The study, conducted in Johannesburg, South Africa, affirms that humans crave instant gratification, especially when the greater reward seems out of sight. Researchers compiled the results of a healthy habits incentive program and found that participants took more steps toward improving their health and wellness when a prize was in reach than those who were not working toward a short-term reward.
Sometimes, the notion of health for health’s sake becomes more appealing with the promise of a free movie ticket or two.
I Want It Now!
The elements of good health are regularly drilled into us: floss, get a yearly check-up, eat a balanced diet. We know that these are the building blocks of overall health, but without an immediate payoff, it’s easy to slack.
“It’s a little bit of pain now and the benefits are far off,” said study co-author Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of healthcare policy and medicine at the Harvard Medical School. “We all know these are the right things to do for our physical and financial health, but they’re kind of annoying and frustrating, so people tend to put them off.”
Skipping the gym once in a while won’t result in a body breakdown, but putting things off can reinforce bad health habits. That’s where incentive programs come in. Mehrotra compares the concept of an insurance company or office's healthy habits incentive program to the many rewards programs consumers already use every day, from grocery stores to gas stations.
His team analyzed how often patients enrolled in the Discovery Health Plan in South Africa used preventive care services between 2005 and 2011. The study group included people enrolled in the health plan's incentives program, as well as some who were not.
In the incentives program, which cost participants about $20 per month, enrollees gained points for receiving preventive care in eight areas of healthcare: cholesterol testing, glucose testing, glaucoma screening, dental exams, HIV testing, prostate specific antigen testing, Pap screening, and mammograms. These services then translated into discounts on retail goods like airline and movie tickets.
Participation in the patient incentive program did indeed make patients significantly more likely to receive preventive care, but researchers said all of the enrollees could still have done better in terms of getting regular preventative care.
Do Incentives Work Long-Term?
Researchers don't yet know how sustainable programs like this are, and the authors caution that incentive programs are certainly not a magic bullet for poor health. Discounted goods did encourage preventive care for the program participants, but there’s room for improvement.
Mehrotra thinks the Discovery Health Plan’s incentive model could easily be translated into programs in the United States, especially because similar models are already in place here. Companies like Walmart and CVS Pharmacy have experimented with rewarding their employees for getting preventive tests and improving their health.
The benefits are two-fold: employees get a little something extra from their employers, and companies retain happier employees who take less time off from work for illness. However, concerns about protecting employee privacy and the ethics of penalizing employees for not taking preventive measures mean these programs can still be improved and refined.
Consumers concerned about their health don't necessarily need to work for a company with a major incentive program. These initiatives can be found in a number of private enterprises, especially in pharmacy and other consumer healthcare-related businesses.
Or, make your own incentive program by rewarding yourself for taking care of your health. And the well-deserved gift of a longer and happier life will still be waiting for you at the end of your workout, making it all the more worthwhile.