Thursday, January 5, 2012

Behavioral Economics and Healthcare Study by Center for Global Development

Just saw this pop up in my inbox from the Center for Global Development, one of the best think tanks out there working on development issues.  It's a new study they're doing together with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that will be looking at how practitioners asses the potential for behavioral economics based solutions in health (click images for larger).

Here's the key lines out of the email: "Behavioral economics approaches may be particularly relevant for health policy: people around the world, regardless of their income or social status, often act in ways that don't reflect what would "rationally" be best for their health. Yet the value of its application in health policy in low and middle income countries, from the view point of practitioners, has yet to be assessed."

And from the start of the survey: "Many...policies [in low and middle-income countries] are based on traditional economic models that assume individuals will behave in a rational manner. However, evidence suggests that individuals deviate from such models. For example, individuals make decisions in the short-run which are inconsistent with their welfare over the long-term, their choices are influenced by how options are framed for them, and they often conform to a dominant social view instead of choosing what is really best for them."

The study caught my eye because it relates pretty strongly to my own work with behavior change here in Moldova.  In fact, three recent books in the behavioral economics line have essentially changed the entire way I look at human behavior and health, and convinced me that the standard economic models aren't sufficient when it comes to health systems.  (The books are Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Sunstein and Thaler's Nudge, and Rosenburg's Join the Club; book reviews forthcoming.)

Behavioral economics has also played a big role in Vitality's work; the three aforementioned books in fact are at the top of our recommended reading list, which is how I first came across them.  (Vitality's founder, after all, is a labor economist by training.)

The field has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years; as Rosenburg points out in Join the Club it's related to one of the biggest public health successes of the last two decades in the U.S.: the reduction in teen smoking.  Nudge, meanwhile, was wide read by incoming Obama administration officials who had their sights set on our healthcare system.

But the CGD study reveals a very interesting fact: despite the fact that it's been getting a lot of academic attention from upper-level policy makers, behavioral economics has yet to filter its way down to tangible policy prescriptions for the development worker in the field.  I would wager that in part is due to the fact that the theory still hasn't been boiled down into programmatic suggestions, making it somewhat daunting for the average programming staff person who struggles to keep abreast of the most recent policy suggestions, let alone have time to redesign new programs from scratch.

Regardless, it will be very interesting to see the results of this study, which should provide the best look yet at the prospects of behavioralism going mainstream in development programs in the near future.

For those interested or unfamiliar with the field, here is a great TED talk by Dan Ariely that gives the basic gist of what behavioral economics is all about.  Enjoy!

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