Impact of a Patient Incentive Program on Receipt of Preventive Care

Patient financial incentives are a potential mechanism to improve health. In a South African health plan, a patient incentive program is associated with increased prevention.
Published Online: June 25, 2014
Ateev Mehrotra, MD; Ruopeng An, PhD; Deepak N. Patel, MBBS; and Roland Sturm, PhD

Patient financial incentives are being promoted as a mechanism to increase receipt of preventive care, encourage healthy behavior, and improve chronic disease management. However, few empirical evaluations have assessed such incentive programs.

Study Design

In South Africa, a private health plan has introduced a voluntary incentive program which costs enrollees approximately $20 per month. In the program, enrollees earn points when they receive preventive care. These points translate into discounts on retail goods such as airline tickets, movie tickets, or cell phones.


We chose 8 preventive care services over the years 2005 to 2011 and compared the change between those who entered the incentive program and those that did not. We used multivariate regression models with individual random effects to try to address selection bias.


Of the 4,186,047 unique individuals enrolled in the health plan, 65.5% (2,742,268) voluntarily enrolled in the incentive program. Joining the incentive program was associated with statistically higher odds of receiving all 8 preventive care services. The odds ratio (and estimated percentage point increase) for receipt of cholesterol testing was 2.70 (8.9%); glucose testing 1.51 (4.7%); glaucoma screening 1.34 (3.9%); dental exam 1.64 (6.3%); HIV test 3.47 (2.6%); prostate specific antigen testing 1.39 (5.6%); Papanicolaou screening 2.17 (7.0%); and mammogram 1.90 (3.1%) (P <.001 for all 8 services). However, preventive care rates among those in the incentive program was still low.


Voluntary participation in a patient incentive program was associated with a significantly higher likelihood of receiving preventive care, though receipt of preventive care among those in the program was still lower than ideal.

Am J Manag Care. 2014;20(6):494-501
  • Discovery Health, a private South African health plan, has implemented a patient incentive program which rewards healthy behavior using discounts on retail goods and travel.

  • Over two-thirds of the health plan’s enrollees have voluntarily chosen to pay approximately $15 per month to join the program.

  • Among those within the incentive program, we found the estimated increase in receipt of preventive services to be 3% to 8%, or a relative 19% to 97% increase.

  • Our results support the idea that patient incentive programs might be a mechanism for health plans to increase rates of preventive care
Despite widespread efforts to encourage prevention, rates of preventive care use fall well short of recommendations.1,2 Much of the focus on improving preventive care has been on decreasing financial barriers. For example, new laws in the United States have eliminated patient out-of-pocket costs for preventive health services.3 While removing out-of-pocket costs will increase the number of people who receive preventive care, the increase is likely to be modest.4,5 Employers and health plans are exploring whether patient incentive programs can spur greater use of preventive care.6,7

In a patient incentive program, a patient receives money or some other financial reward for healthy behavior.7 In theory, these programs address a fundamental problem with preventive care—when making the choice to receive preventive care, patients balance the inconvenience of receiving preventive care with distant and often intangible benefits. Humans generally discount such future benefits8,9 and therefore it may not be surprising that many patients do not seek preventive care. Incentive programs might help address this discrepancy between immediate inconvenience and future benefit by increasing the perceived immediate benefits of prevention.

There have been several randomized trials focusing on patient incentives to promote healthy behavior.10-12 For example, Volpp and colleagues found that a $750 incentive led to a three-fold increase in the number of people able to quit smoking.13 While important, this prior research has been limited to small clinical trials with a narrow focus, relatively short follow-up periods, and an incentive structure that may not be sustainable.7 In this paper, we study the impact of a patient incentive program operated by a private health plan in South Africa which has been in place for over a decade and includes almost 1.5 million enrollees. In this program, receipt of preventive care services “earns” points for enrollees, and points translate into rewards such as discounted travel or cell phone minutes. We assessed the impact of enrollment in this incentive program on receipt of preventive care services by comparing the receipt of preventive services among those who joined the program to those that did not join the program.



We analyzed the receipt of preventive care for members of the Discovery Health Plan in South Africa between 2005 and 2011. In South Africa, approximately 15% of the population, typically the most affluent, obtain private health insurance either independently or through their employer. Those with private insurance receive care from physicians and hospitals in a system entirely separate from the larger public healthcare system. In our eAppendix (available at, we demonstrate that those with private health plan insurance in South Africa are socioeconomically comparable to the general US population.

Our study population included both health plan members in the incentives program and those not in the incentives program. Our only exclusion criteria were those in a separate low-cost insurance product. These members were not eligible for the incentive program and because this product is targeted to the poor, the enrollee population is very different.

Patient Incentives Program

The health plan’s reward program focuses on encouraging both prevention and healthy behaviors. The incentive program is offered on a voluntary opt-in basis as South African law does not permit such programs to be made mandatory in a health plan product. Members must pay $17 per month for an individual or $21 per month for a family to enroll in the incentive program (approximately 5% of the cost of health plan membership). Enrollees can drop the incentive program at any time and on average, 7.5% drop out in a year.

Members of the reward program earn points for a number health behaviors such as receiving preventive care services, visiting a gym, smoking cessation, seeing a nutritionist, and buying healthier food at the grocery store. Our focus is just on receipt of preventive care services. In Table 1, we list the allocation of points for these preventive services. The points earned by receiving preventive care did not change during study period. Points translate into increasing status levels. The default status is Blue. For an individual member, status increases as follows: Bronze (15,000-34,999 points); Silver (35,000-44,999); Gold (≥45,000); and Diamond (3 consecutive years on Gold).

Higher status level translates into increasing discounts on a range of goods and services from approximately 25 commercial partners in South Africa. These include store purchases, movie tickets, local and international flights, car rentals, and hotel booking. For example, the discount for 1 hotel chain was 30% and 50% for Blue and Diamond status, respectively. In 2009, the average annual value of incentives to members of the reward program was approximately $275 across all members and greater than $1500 in the highest Diamond tier.

Enrollees can sign up for the incentive program in several ways: they can sign up when they first join the health plan, or members already with the health plan can sign up with a phone call or download and submit an application form that is available online. The process of accruing points is automated and does not require members to submit any forms. For instance, when a claim for a mammogram is received by the health plan, points are automatically allocated to the patient. Rewards (discount) are either available at the time of the purchase or are paid in a check at the end of the month. During the study period, enrollees could receive the points even if they received the service ahead of what might be recommended by different guidelines. For example, some guidelines recommend a mammogram every 2 years, but if a woman in the incentive program received a mammogram yearly, she would receive the associated points each year.

For each year, we classified whether the health plan enrollee was a member of the reward program as of January 1 of that year. We used an “intention-to-treat” analysis such that a patient who enrolls in a reward program was considered to be in the reward program in all subsequent years even if they unenrolled at some point.

Measuring Receipt of Preventive Care

For each enrollee, we tracked receipt of 10 preventive care services within each calendar year. Eight preventive care services were associated with financial incentives (cholesterol testing, fasting glucose testing, human immunodeficiency virus [HIV] test, mammogram, Papanicolaou [Pap] test, dental screening, glaucoma screening, and prostate specific antigen test). Two preventive care services were not associated with financial incentives (colon cancer screening and bone density scan for osteoporosis). We tracked the 2 nonincentivized services because there is concern that financial incentives may lead enrollees to neglect nonincentivized services.14 Although it is associated with an incentive, we did not track receipt of the influenza vaccine, because many enrollees receive the vaccine in the workplace or pay out of pocket and therefore it is not accurately tracked in the health plan claims. We also did not track human papillomavirus and pneumococcal vaccinations, because incentives for these preventive services began in 2010. Lastly, we did not track receipt of childhood vaccinations. As described below, we examined the likelihood of receiving a preventive service before and after entry into the program. Such a model cannot be used for services only offered during a narrow age period. For each service, the health plan designates age and gender eligibility for incentive program members to claim points (Table 1). Preventive care services were identified by relevant billing and diagnosis codes in health plan claims.

Health plan members must first visit a general practitioner to receive 6 of the 10 preventive services. For 3 services (cholesterol screening, glucose testing, and HIV test), health plan members can also get these tests without a physician’s order at a pharmacy or on wellness days at work sites. For dental screening, patients go directly to a dentist. As of 2006, South Africa law mandates that the 8 preventive services, except for dental screening and glaucoma screening, be provided without any patient co-payment. In 2005, coverage for preventive services varied by type of health plan. We did a sensitivity analysis in which we eliminated 2005 data.

In our analyses, we examined the receipt of a preventive service within a single year. Many preventive services such as breast or cervical cancer screening are not indicated yearly. The percentages reported are therefore not indicative of what fraction of the population is up to date with preventive care.

Measuring Utilization of Health Services by Health Plan Members

We tracked the number of visits to a general practitioner and whether the enrollee had 1 of 20 chronic illnesses. The chronic illnesses were identified by a diagnosis on an outpatient or inpatient claim or whether the patient filled a prescription for a medication related to that illness (diagnoses listed in eAppendix D). Chronic illness data was only available from the health plan from 2008 through 2011.

Study Design

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