09/16/2011 09:32 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

An Innovative Approach to Healthcare: Reward Healthy Choices


I will never forget the moment -- I was having coffee with a former prime minister a few years ago and I was proudly sharing with him my idea of launching a responsible lifestyle incentive program across the country, when he suddenly glanced up at me and said: "You should know... carrots ALWAYS work better than sticks."

Indeed, carrots do work better. Incentive rewards naturally trigger positive emotions in people and help build momentum and sustained shifts in behaviour over time. By contrast, punitive restrictions or fear messaging can generate negative emotions which, at best, could only support temporary results -- the moment you withdraw the "stick," the behaviour reverts back to what it was before.

In recent years our provincial and federal health policy leaders have started to pay more attention and shift more resources to health promotion (or "prevention", as it's sometimes called). It's a brilliant new approach -- instead of spending all our energy curing sick people, we're now investing more and more in keeping them from getting sick in the first place. We print scary pictures on cigarette packages; we educate Canadians about the risks associated with obesity and inactivity; we tax alcohol; we put nutritional information on food packaging. All of that is good and often quite innovative, but at its core it's still really a "stick" approach -- we work hard to discourage or even scare Canadians away from bad lifestyle choices.

Imagine if, instead of scaring them, we actually rewarded people when they bought healthy groceries, when they exercised or when they called into a smoking cessation hotline? Imagine the possibilities -- being able to sharply target specific population groups; being able to regulate and adjust and shift incentive offers over time; being able to track specific progress and trends right down to an individual postal code or a micro-demographic! None of this is fantasy stuff; none of it is even all that complex or sophisticated -- it's what people in my (consumer loyalty) industry do every day. In fact, over the past year we have started to experiment with exactly these types of concepts by offering consumers extra loyalty points when they make healthier lifestyle choices or even when they just participate in a public health education campaign. So far, the results have been extremely encouraging across the spectrum of concepts and across the country.

Could this be a big part of the future for Canadian health promotion and care? I confidently believe so. I think that wise old prime minister was right -- "carrots" can be a much more effective tool for influencing the behaviour of millions, so they should definitely be part of any recipe for the future of our national health strategy.