At first glance, behavioral economics — the basis of Richard Thaler’s recent Nobel Prize in Economics — seems like a rich field of potential solutions. People tend to do things, like donate organs, when it’s the default option as opposed to something they need to request. They tend to be less likely to miss appointments if you tell them how many other patients show up for theirs. They tend to be more likely to engage in preventive behaviors like using sunscreen if you focus on the benefits, not the harms. Many are turning to ideas like these to improve medication adherence.
But those excited about the potential of behavioral economics should keep in mind the results of a recent study. It pulled out all the stops in trying to get patients who had a heart attack to be more compliant in taking their medication. (Patients’ adherence at such a time is surprisingly low, even though it makes a big difference in outcomes, so this is a major problem.)
Researchers randomly assigned more than 1,500 people to one of two groups. All had recently had heart attacks. One group received the usual care. The other received special electronic pill bottles that monitored patients’ use of medication. Those patients who took their drugs were entered into a lottery in which they had a 20 percent chance to receive $5 and a 1 percent chance to win $50 every day for a year.
That’s not all. The lottery group members could also sign up to have a friend or family member automatically be notified if they didn’t take their pills so that they could receive social support. They were given access to special social work resources. There was even a staff engagement adviser whose specific duty was providing close monitoring and feedback, and who would remind patients about the importance of adherence.
This was a kitchen-sink approach. It involved direct financial incentives, social support nudges, health care system resources and significant clinical management. It failed.
The time to first hospitalization for a cardiovascular problem or death was the same between the two groups. The time to any hospitalization and the total number of hospitalizations were the same. So were the medical costs. Even medication adherence — the process measure that might influence these outcomes — was no different between the two groups.
The researchers in this trial deserve praise for their frank assessment of their results, as well as for trying to brainstorm ways in which they might achieve success in the future. Getting patients to change their behavior is very hard. In the past, we’ve tried making drugs free to patients to get them to adhere to their medications and improve outcomes. That failed. We’ve tried lotteries (as in the study above) to nudge people to achieve better compliance. That failed.
Maybe financial incentives, and behavioral economics in general, work better in public health than in more direct health care. There have been successes, after all, with respect to weight loss — although these seemed to disappear over time. We’ve also seen promise with respect to smoking cessation, although these come with caveats as well.
Experts caution that the interventions that achieve success are often very intensive. They demand a great deal of attention, and can be quite expensive. Moreover, they are very focused, usually on a single issue or condition.
The problem is that health has so many moving parts. The health care system has even more. Trying to improve any one aspect can make others worse. Behavioral economics may offer us some fascinating theories to test in controlled trials, but we have a long way to go before we can assume it’s a cure for what ails Americans.