Effective health policy isn’t an oxymoron

It’s hard to read the news or open a computer without encountering something about the U.S. healthcare system. Perhaps it’s an article about “repeal and replace,” or a piece on the opioid epidemic. Maybe you’re interested in rising obesity rates, or the challenges of implementing electronic health records. It seems that everyone is writing about health in the United States, and the news is often bad.

It would be understandable to feel discouraged or think there is no policy solution that can achieve the types of changes necessary to improve the health of our country. However, there is reason to believe that meaningful health policy is possible and sustainable.

I focus much of my research on behavioral economics, which looks at how and why humans make the decisions that they do. If you have ever tried to diet or start working out regularly, you know there is often a disconnect between knowing what is best for you and doing what is best for you. Life gets in the way and variables outside your control can thwart even the best of intentions.

Behavioral economics offers policy makers several strategies for improving health outcomes by influencing how we make decisions, and the effect is observable in diverse areas of health policy.

I was recently part of a “Behavioral Science and Policy Working Group in Health” organized by the Behavioral Science and Policy Association examining “Applications of Behavioral Economics to Health Care Policy.” The aim of this group was to report to the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. In our report, we discussed how behavioral economics (and behavioral science more generally) can inform a wide range of “big” healthcare issues such as:

  • How to improve disease and lifestyle management
  • How to shape access to health insurance and quality of plan choice
  • How to encourage efficient utilization of medical care
  • How to improve end of life decision-making and medical donations
  • How to responsibly shape the uptake of new technologies

Our conclusions are optimistic: change in the healthcare system is possible and supported by the evidence. By allowing behavioral economics to inform health policy decision-making, we can craft policies that have the best chance of success. By using the latest in behavioral science, policymakers can improve health outcomes, reduce health disparities, and contain costs.

No matter who you are or what your political beliefs may be, that’s good news.

-By Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D., M.A., Cullen associate professor of medical ethics and associate director of medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine

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