Corporate Executive Panel Cites Inaccessibility of Academic Researchers’ Insights
By Hoag Levins
Academic researchers who are compiling large amounts of new knowledge about how behavioral economics principles can be applied to workplace health initiatives aren’t making those insights available to company managers in a meaningfully useful manner, according to a panel of high-level corporate wellness executives. The panel was part of the 2014 two-day Behavioral Economics and Health Symposium sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics(CHIBE), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Donaghue Foundation. CHIBE is one of the country’s largest centers of behavioral economics research.
Setting out the goals of the 90-minute session, moderator David Asch, Executive Director of Penn’s Center for Health Care Innovation, asked, “What can we learn from (these executives) that can inform the kinds of research questions that (behavioral economics scientists) ask? What can panelists tell us about what is necessary for the work we do to be more relevant? What are the exciting challenges that (corporate managers) face that should become grist for the mill for the next round of research projects that we do?”
Panelist Derek Yach raised the issue of how involved academic experts should be in implementing the policy changes their research informs. He’s Executive Director of the Vitality Institute, an international think tank focused on healthy lifestyles and prevention of chronic disease that is part of Discovery Limited, South Africa’s largest health insurance company.
Getting academics more involved
“The opportunity I see, in addition to the wonderful research here,” said Yach, “is that the world is moving very fast away from a purely public health paternalistic approach to addressing the public’s behavior change where we need a more sophisticated understanding of how people are expecting to be more engaged in the decision making themselves. The challenge is going to be how can the behavioral economists not just do the experiments they’re doing now but be engaged in the macro policy debates about saying what should change.”
“For instance, what needs to be changed in the food environment?” Yach asked noting that behavioral economic efforts in areas like calorie labeling are interesting but “that’s really not going to do it.”
“One of the problems, obviously, is that we have too many calories in the food supply system,” said Yach, the former SVP for Global Health of PepsiCo. “Eight years ago, people thought ‘no company’s going to agree to take out x number of calories from the food supply.’ But now they have. They’ve taken out six and a half trillion calories representing 25% of the food supply and agreed to do it because the disincentives for them would have been an accelerated regulatory process with no end for where that would lead.”
Behavioral economic insight
“I mention that because if you use economic principles to think through the mindset of what motivates change and how we go about our policies at a higher level, it would have a big impact on the food environment,” Yach said. “At the moment we’ve got all of these silos: food companies framed as bad as the tobacco companies; a holier-than-thou public health community that brands everything whether it’s local, organic, nutritious, healthy, gluten free, as being equivalent — as if any of that’s going to have much of an impact on obesity; and regulators sitting somewhere between being pressurized by the lobbyists and the NGOs not knowing what to do. I think some clarity around how we are so misaligned across the entiresystem — which is a behavior economic insight — would be incredibly helpful.”
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