As newspaper headlines have shown, the issue of encouraging individuals to adopt healthier lifestyle behaviours by paying them is controversial. Whilst many of us know that we should do a bit more physical activity, eat our five-a-day fruit and vegetables and even attend our vaccination and screening appointments, we don’t always do this. Many barriers prevent us from fully engaging with these healthy behaviours, and these barriers are often complex, individual, and are not always easily surmountable. These barriers range from living away from green spaces which would allow outdoor exercising, to deep-seated social norms that stop individuals from engaging in healthy behaviours because they are not well accepted by family, friends or the wider community.
In recent years there has been a growing body of research looking at paying people to be healthier. This essentially means providing individuals or groups with cash, shopping vouchers or gifts in return for the adoption of healthier behaviours. Such schemes include the Pound for Pound weight loss incentive scheme, the Give it Up for Baby scheme, and offering incentives for breastfeeding.
In order to hear recent research evidence, and to provide a forum for friendly debate, I organised the recent Fuse Quarterly Research Meeting, which focused on payment for health behaviours. Last Wednesday (22 July), policymakers, practitioners, and academics came together to hear presentations from four academics and practitioners working in the broad field of incentives. As Claire Sullivan, a Consultant in Public Health from Public Health England mentioned in her opening address as Chair of the meeting, often incentives can take various forms – including paper pants for Chlamydia screening!
In terms of specific incentives, Professor Pat Hoddinott, Chair in Primary Care, Nursing Midwifery and Allied Health Professions Research Unit at the University of Stirling, presented research which focused on incentives for breastfeeding and to quit smoking in pregnancy – the BIBS study. Key findings suggest that tailoring of incentives is important to meet local needs, but that they show promise to encourage these behaviours.
Professor David Tappin, Professor for Clinical Trials in Children within the School of Medicine at the University of Glasgow, followed Pat by showcasing data from the CPIT trial – a smoking cessation in pregnancy trial in its second phase. Results showed that there was a 14% increase in quit rate and further analysis showed that there was a 150g increase in birth weight of babies born to mothers who quit smoking. Findings suggest that financial incentives were found to be acceptable by the women involved, and may double the quit rate when used with existing smoking cessation services.
A practitioner perspective was provided by Mr Andrew Radley, Consultant in Public Health Pharmacy, NHS Tayside, who talked about operationalising the use of financial incentives in a stop smoking programme within a community pharmacy setting. In particular, 393 women in Tayside engaged with the smoking cessation services, and incentives were found to be effective. Of note was the finding that mothers preferred receiving their incentives on a weekly basis.
I spoke last and presented qualitative data exploring the acceptability of incentives. The findings suggest that incentives are more likely to be accepted if they are provided to certain population groups including pregnant women and those on a low income, but not for those who may have alcohol or drug problems. The ‘perfect’ incentive has yet to be identified, but it will need to be shown to be cost-effective for it to be accepted on a wider scale.
The presenters were then joined by Peter Kelly, Director of Public Health Stockton Borough Council, Jim Beall, Health and Wellbeing Board Chairman, and Dr Jean Adams NIHR Research Fellow at CEDAR for a panel discussion. The audience raised many questions and comments around the use of incentives, with particular concerns around incentives increasing health inequalities, aggressively placing the blame of poor health on individuals, and that incentives may result in moral implications when individuals are rewarded for their behaviour. The debate suggested that more research evidence is needed to discover what type of incentive works for whom, and in what setting, and to better explore group (rather than individual) incentives.
What is obvious is that paying people to be healthier is an emotive topic, a highly contested intervention approach, but at the same time, it also shows promise to encourage individuals to adopt healthier lifestyle behaviours. It certainly provides food for thought…how many of us would accept money to be healthier?
Follow this link to find out more about the Fuse Quarterly Research Meeting ‘Payment for health behaviours: the case of health promoting financial incentives’ on the Fuse website.
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