Behavioral Economics and Influenza Immunization

On occasion, your correspondent fights the northeast’s dreary weekend winter evenings with a dram of spirituous liquor like Macallan 12. Unlocked with a small splash of water and a single ice cube, a generous ounce of that pungent cinnamon leathery elixir turns the cold into cozy.

So naturally, your correspondent relies on spouse to help keep a therapeutic stock available.  Both yours truly and spouse run errands and it shouldn’t be too hard for either to be proactive by periodically checking supplies, buying some Macallan when necessary and avoiding the unhappiness of a dispirited and cold author.

Unfortunately,  spouse doesn’t always see it that way.

Welcome to the complicated world of behavioral economics. It tells us that it’s difficult for persons to expend effort today to reduce the tomorrow’s risk of an unlikely event. It’s why many persons chose to not take or pay for medications today to reduce the distant likelihood of disability or early death.  There’s more on the topic here.

This also explains why persons don’t do a good job getting a flu shot for themselves or their loved ones. Check out this interesting information from athenahealth. According to their pooled electronic health record (EHR) data, 2.5% of children without a flu shot came down with the flu, versus only 0.9% of those who got the shot.  While getting a shot reduced the relative risk of coming down with the disease by approximately two thirds, the vast majority of kids who went without immunization (97.5%) did OK.  Data from the CDC in adults reflects the same kind of numbers: 80% of persons in the U.S. do not come down with the flu in the course of the year.

How can the population health and care management community leverage behavioral economics to increase immunization rates?

Well, don’t follow the failed Macallan approach described above.  Rather…..

1. Neutralize the reluctance to work today to lower an ephemeral concept of future risk with cognitive bias. Rewarding people today for today provides instant gratification.  That could include raffles, coupons and monetary rewards.  Why not,  since flu shots are one of the few interventions that truly reduce health care costs?

2. Appeal to the sense of community by pointing out that getting immunized decreases your chance of infecting others.  That’s one of the reasons hotels appeal to a collective sense of environmentalism, not laundry costs, by asking you to reuse your towels.

Your correspondent pledges to reward spouse (one idea is a one month subscription to Netflix?) and point out how much we’d both benefit from its coziness.  It will update readers on the success of this splendidly scientific approach at a future date.

Jaan Sidorov, MD, is a primary care internist and former Medical Director at Geisinger Health Plan with over 20 years experience in primary care, disease management and population-based care coordination. He shares his knowledge and insights at Disease Management Care Blog, where this post first appeared.

1 reply »

  1. What the data tells about those who got the vaccination is that, one third of the time, the vaccination was not effective. A product that appears to work only two thirds of the time is not a very good product. In fact, I would posit that the product may not work at all, as advertised, and there may be other factors which account for the reduced incidence of flu among the vaccinated.