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Will Pay For Performance Backfire? Insights From Behavioral Economics

October 11th, 2012

Editor’s note: In addition to Steffie Woolhandler and Dan Ariely (photos and linked bios above), this post is authored by David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College.

Paying for performance (P4P) has strong intuitive appeal. Common sense and rigorous studies tell us that paying more for, say, angioplasties or immunizations yields more of them. So paying doctors and hospitals for better care, not just more of it, seems like a no-brainer. Yet while Medicare and many private insurers are charging ahead with pay-for-performance (P4P), researchers have been unable to show that it benefits patients.

Findings from the new field of behavioral economics may explain these negative results. They challenge the traditional economic view that monetary reward is either the only motivator or is simply additive to intrinsic motivators such as purpose or altruism. Studies have shown that monetary rewards can undermine motivation and worsen performance on cognitively complex and intrinsically rewarding work, suggesting that P4P may backfire.

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