Kevin Volpp Wins NIH Award for Behavioral Research

Kevin Volpp Wins NIH Award for Behavioral Research

Honored for National Leadership in 'Translating Behavioral Economics Into Health'

In an honor recognizing his role as a national leader in the discipline of "translating behavioral economics into health," the University of Pennsylvania's Kevin Volpp has received the National Institutes of Health (NIH) annual Matilda White Riley Award for behavorial research.

He was one of two 2015 recipients of the NIH honor, the other being Jeanne Brookes-Gunn of Columbia University.


Kevin Volpp, MD, PhD, Director of
the LDI Center for Health Incentives
and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE)
and winner of the 2015 NIH Matilda
White Riley Award.

Volpp, MD, PhD, is the founding Director of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics' Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE), one of only two NIH-funded Centers for Behavioral Economics and Health in the U.S.

The Matilda White Riley award
Named for the NIH official who originally established the grant program for health-related behavioral research and for twenty years oversaw the continued expansion of that new discipline, the Matilda White Riley award is accompanied by an invitation to give a one-hour national presentation from the NIH podium and website.

Both events were a central feature of the recent 3-day seminar celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR).

Volpp is a Professor of Medicine and Vice Chairman for Health Policy of the Department of Medical Ethics and Policy at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine and a Professor of Health Care Management at the Wharton School.

Predictable irrationality
In his NIH presentation, the Penn behavioral economist spoke at length about his center's efforts to document and understand the illogical reasoning people use when making decisions about harmful lifestyle behaviors and medical care.

"What behavioral economics has really mapped out is the many ways in which people are predictably irrational in their health- and health care-related decisions and tend to be affected by many factors that deviate from standard economics," Volpp said. "They can be influenced by how they feel about the costs and benefits of decisions right now as opposed to the future consequences of those decisions. That's obviously a very big contributor to health behavior. At the same time, their decisions can be further, and often quite heavily, influenced by the decisions of the people around them -- their family members, friends and co-workers."

Somewhat more forgiving world view
"One of the limitations to think about is that when a person engages in harmful behaviors like smoking or obesity, he basically presumes these are optimal behaviors. So, applying the traditional economics measures of just providing information or adjusting prices may not be very effective. Behavioral economics, on the other hand, suggests a somewhat more forgiving view of the world and recognizes that decision environments and the structure of incentives can have a big impact on what people actually do."

"All of this," Volpp continued, "has very clear implications for the design of employee wellness programs' health interventions. It's not just the size of the reward that matters. Incentive delivery design and choice environments are really critical as well." 

In a lenghy interview with the OBSSR "Connector" website prior to his presentation, Volpp critiqued the current national rush toward health care innovations based on new and often very expensive technologies.

Advocates shift in national innovation focus
He told the Connector that there must be a shift in health care innovation efforts -- instead of the development of new kinds of treatments, he said there needs to be new focus on achieving more effective management of disease, improved efficiency throughout health care operations, improving health behavior in general and in the addressing of social determinants of health."

"We will need to map out how to do this efficiently in leveraging the capabilities and resources of providers, health plans and employers," he continued. "We will need to figure out how to deliver much higher value in terms of population health to the American population as we can't continue to spend far more than any other country but rank poorly on population health."