Editor’s Desk

Health–with a little bit of luck

Peter Wehrwein

Kevin Volpp, MD, should know better.

Volpp is the founding director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied lotteries and knows the tricks they play on the human brain. Invariably, people tend to overestimate small probabilities that are near zero, Volpp explained in a talk last month at Penn.

But despite the vanishingly small, 1 in 292 million odds, Volpp chipped into the office pool that bought tickets for the $1.6 billion Powerball lottery drawing on January 13.

Volpp said he was motivated partly by a desire to avoid regret. What if his officemates did win and he hadn’t joined in?

Lotteries can also be viewed as entertainment, Volpp told me after his talk. I can relate to that. I am writing this piece because my Powerball ship did not come in. But for a couple of hours there, I had a great fantasy life going. How much for the kids, my mother, my siblings, some friends and cousins? How much for some kind of civic project for my neighborhood in Philadelphia or a journalism endeavor? It went on and on.

Because of research by Volpp and others, health plans are tapping into the human weakness for games of chance. We’re seeing it firsthand here at Managed Care. Our Aetna plan is offering us a chance to win a Fitbit if we fill out a health assessment and participate in a “health journey” aimed at addressing one of a variety of health issues, including sleep, stress, and losing weight. Getting certain preventive health services, such as a screening colonoscopy or an annual physical, will also get you entered. Do both and an unnamed grand prize could be yours, we’ve been told.

I am curious about the health assessment and am overdue for a physical. The Fitbit lottery will give me a little extra motivation to get with Aetna’s program. But I am also thinking about playing Powerball a little more often.

Aetna’s program may improve my health, but Powerball—that did wonders for my fantasy life.