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Study Finds Reducing Stress May Cut Medical Spending

Allison Quantz for NHPR

The holiday season is fast approaching, and coming along with it is the stress associated with making travel plans or preparing big meals for family gatherings. That stress could take a toll on your body as well as your mind. It could cause back pain, insomnia and stomach problems, just to name a few.

We know that rest is a good way to cut down some of these problems. But now a new study demonstrates that relaxation programs could reduce your medical bills as well. 

Dr. James Stahl was the lead researcher from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center on the study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

We’ve known for some time now that rest and relaxation helps stress. But this study looked at something different: how stress and the use of relaxation techniques to ease it affect the health care system. What did you find?

Our study found that eliciting the relaxation response, getting the mind and body to relax and get into a healing state, reduced the need for seeing a doctor, going to the hospital, or other use of healthcare resources.

And in your study, you found that one group of people reduced their visits to the hospital by 43 percent after they took an eight-week relaxation program.

That’s correct. And just to go into a little more detail: the program that’s eight weeks runs people through a variety of skills and tools that they develop, which include meditation, positive psychology, resiliency training, some yoga, and a few other things that have all been tested and vetted over quite a few years over many clinical trials, and this work was done primarily by the Benson-Henry Institute, which was founded by Herb Benson.

What we found was that after folks—and this was all comers—after folks took the course, that their health and well-being increased substantially, and that their need or desire to seek out additional resources was reduced. So it was really all comers, and it seemed to have a very general affect across everybody.

You also found that because of those reduced visits to hospitals, emergency rooms, the test subjects also ended up saving money. How much money?

Depending on where the person was to start with, the range of savings could be anywhere from $600 to $25,000 per patient per year.

A single visit to the emergency room is several thousand dollars, and so anything that we can do that makes people better and helps them with their wellness in turn makes it less likely that they’re going to need these expensive resources. So just even shifting the needs away from, let’s say, one emergency room visit to, you know, reducing it by one emergency room visit, saves everybody a substantial amount of money. And the goal is wellness. If you’re well, you don’t want to seek these resources, and that makes everybody better.

Did your study reach any conclusions about what would happen to the broader healthcare system if fewer people were coming to the emergency room for stress related ailments?

Yes. We found that if folks were coming in for medical-related issues that were primarily not related to stress, but really related to things that we’re really, as a healthcare system, designed to take care of, that the stress on the healthcare system as a whole was reduced.

So if you could imagine as one of the biggest drivers of stress in this system for doctors is, you know, how our healthcare systems are designed to see more and more patients in less and less time. If people are feeling better, physically and mentally, they need to see the doctor less, and the doctor has more time to see the patients that they do see during the day, then having more time to see the patients that need to be seen then they can provide better care, which in turn makes our patients—which is our goal—even more well, which would end up creating a virtuous cycle.

So, rather than being in this high-productivity model that tends to create harm as well as good, we can shift ourselves to a more virtuous cycle where we’re actually creating wellness as opposed to treating illness.

For people listening now who think that they would want to try to de-stress themselves, but maybe they can’t do longer programs like the one in your study, they simply don’t have time in their lives for it, but they do have ten or fifteen minutes a day. So would you say that spending ten minutes per day de-stressing somehow would be just as beneficial as a regimented program?

Anything you do to reduce your stress is going to be good. The regimented program that we put people through was really sort of a boot camp for mental and physical wellness. We do expect people to continue to do those ten minutes a day to keep their health and well-being up.

Can people do this on their own, without going through this program? Yes, absolutely. There are many ways to get into a well state that doesn’t require much time. The real issue is actually consistency. Taking a little time every day to take care of yourself really pays dividends in the long run. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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