STRESS
October 21, 2015

Relaxation Puts A Dent In Healthcare Costs

People who meditate or do yoga use far fewer healthcare services than those who don't. Insurers, take note.

We all know that stress is linked to myriad health problems, from obesity/overweight to heart disease. What’s additionally becoming clear is that the opposite seems also to be true — learning to relax in a fundamental way can lower the risk of health problems.

When people really learn how to harness the power of relaxation, they can reduce their health care visits — and health care costs, a new study has found.

“These programs promote wellness and, in our environment of constrained health care resources, could potentially ease the burden on our health delivery systems at minimal cost and at no real risk.”

Forty years ago, Herbert Benson of the Benson Henry Institute (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) coined the term “relaxation response,” a state of deep relaxation, in which the all-too-familiar fight-or-flight response is dialed way, way down. Meditation, deep breathing, and prayer were among the methods he noted that help turn off the stress response, and turn on the relaxation response.

Now, Benson's successors at the BHI have determined that teaching people how to enter into the relaxation response can reduce the amount of health care needed over time.

They looked at data from individuals participating in the BHI’s Relaxation Response Resiliency Program from 2006 to 2014. The program is comprised not only of education about the relaxation response, it also involves social support, cognitive skills training, and the use of positive psychology, which aims to build resiliency in patients. Participants came from hospitals, including MGH, Brigham and Women’s, and others in the Boston area.

The people in the relaxation resiliency group had significantly fewer hospital visits than controls. They reduced their use of health care services by 43% overall over the year following their time in the program. When the team controlled for certain individual variables, they still found a 25% reduction in the participants’ use of all clinical services, the highest reductions being in neurologic, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal services. There were also significant reductions in the number of imaging and lab tests the participants in the relaxation group needed over that year.

Not only does the program seem to improve people’s health, but the financial benefit may be significant, too. The researchers estimate that the cost of the program is offset in just four to six months, while its effects last for a year, or likely longer.

“Our study's primary finding is that programs that train patients to elicit the relaxation response…can also dramatically reduce health care utilization,” said study author James E. Stahl in a news release. “These programs promote wellness and, in our environment of constrained health care resources, could potentially ease the burden on our health delivery systems at minimal cost and at no real risk.”

More and more hospitals are using alternative methods as part of their treatments, especially for cancer patients, who often benefit greatly from a mind-body approach.

These alternative methods are less alternative as science backs their value again and again. Hopefully when insurance companies see, if not the health benefits of these methods, then the financial benefits, they’ll start covering the costs more routinely. And for people who are not ailing, methods like yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques can also do a world of immediate good, and be powerful preventive measures as well.

The study was carried out by a team at the Institute for Technology Assessment and the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and published in PLOS ONE.

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