A new interdisciplinary project at Harvard will explore how behavioral science and behavioral economics can help improve health outcomes for patients and decisions made by doctors. It also has the potential to increase cost-effectiveness.
The project, Behavioral Insights Health Project at Harvard, is a University-wide partnership between faculty members at Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School and other Harvard schools. It will draw on the expertise of a wide range of experts at Harvard University: doctors, public health specialists, economists, policy analysts and law professors.
By drawing on current best practices, emerging tools and research in behavioral economics, the project will identify ways to improve outcomes for patients, improve medical decisions and identify cost-effective approaches. Potential areas of exploration include smoking cessation, blood pressure control, opioid addiction, medical adherence and cancer treatment. Special attention will be given to health-related “nudges,” such as reminders, default rules, and other information, which preserve freedom of choice and promote better outcomes.
The steering committee for the project includes Jeffrey Flier, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and the George Higginson Professor of Medicine and Physiology at Harvard Medical School, where he was dean from 2007 to 2016; Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard and faculty director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School; and Anupam Jena, the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School and a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Jena is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The Project’s board of advisers, which is expected to grow, includes a wide range of faculty from the Harvard community, including Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School. Sunstein said he expects the project to attract students and faculty from schools across the University, and, in particular, to draw on the research and expertise of the Behavioral Insights Group based at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“We intend to share best practices, explore which interventions work and which do not, and find ways to reduce illness, suffering and premature mortality,” said Sunstein. “We will enlist decades of work in behavioral science and behavioral economics, which offers a host of insights that have only begun to be applied to medicine and health.”
More information about the principals:
Jeffrey Flier served as the 21st Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University from 2007 to 2016. An endocrinologist and an authority on the molecular causes of obesity and diabetes, Flier is a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and Higginson Professor of Medicine and Physiology at Harvard Medical School. He is one of the nation’s leading investigators in the areas of obesity and diabetes. His research has produced major insights into the molecular mechanism of insulin action, the molecular mechanisms of insulin resistance in human disease and the molecular pathophysiology of obesity.
Cass Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University. His scholarship spans behavioral economics and public policy, constitutional law and democratic theory, legal theory and jurisprudence, administrative law, and the regulation of risk. To date, Sunstein has published 48 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. In 1998, Sunstein broke new ground, together with Richard Thaler and Christine Jolls, with the paper “A Behavioral Approach to Law and Economics,” which initiated a new academic field, behavioral law and economics. Sunstein and Thaler followed up with the best-selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2008. The book discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives, and it helped popularize and cement the influence of behavioral law and economics.
In June, Sunstein will receive the Holberg Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding researcher in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, law or theology.
Anupam Jena is the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School and a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. As an economist and physician, Jena’s research involves several areas of health economics and policy, including the economics of physician behavior and the physician workforce, medical malpractice, the economics of health care productivity and the economics of medical innovation.