Issue Briefs

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The application of behavioral economics to health and health care has captured the imagination of policymakers across the political spectrum. The idea is that many people are irrational in predictable ways, and that this both contributes to unhealthy behaviors like smoking and holds one of the keys to changing those behaviors. Because health care costs continue to increase, and a substantial portion of costs are incurred because of unhealthy behaviors, employers and insurers have great interest in using financial incentives to change behaviors. However, it is in the details that complexity and controversies emerge. Who should the targets be, and what outcomes should be rewarded? How should incentives be structured, to maximize their effectiveness and minimize unintended consequences? In what situations should we be intervening to affect decisions by people who may prefer to be obese or to smoke, and in what situations should we accept their preferences?

To begin to answer these questions, the Penn-CMU Roybal P30 Center on Behavioral Economics and Health held its first annual Behavioral Economics and Health Symposium on March 24-25, 2011 with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The symposium drew more than 50 researchers, scholars, and health professionals from a variety of disciplines, including medicine, public health, economics, law, management, marketing, and psychology. They heard perspectives on behavioral economics from public and private funders, the CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and the CEO of, a start-up company that uses online, voluntary commitment contracts to help people achieve their goals. Participants formed eight working groups to review the current state-of-the-art in a variety of clinical contexts and to consider how behavioral economics could inform a research agenda to improve health. This Issue Brief summarizes the findings of these working groups and the symposium.

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health behavior & communication, behavioral economics/behavior change

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Date Posted: 09 December 2016