After using relaxation-response technique, such as yoga, meditation and even prayer, participants involved in a study coordinated by the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) solicited health care services 43% less frequently. The researchers involved in the study say simply learning how to relax to fend off anxiety and depression -second only to cancer and heart diseases in terms of health care costs – might significantly reduce the strain on the health care system. As such, more wide spread use of relaxation-response techniques could free up immense resources that can be diverted for chronic diseases.
The Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (3RP) teaches self-care practices that help buffer daily stress, making participants less emotionally and physically vulnerable to it. The program was founded by Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson, also one of the study’s co-authors. Practices that elicit relaxation response (the opposite of fight-or-flight response) include meditation, deep breathing, and prayer.
The MGH researchers gathered data on people participating in the BHI Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (3RP) from 2006 to 2014. Some 4,400 3RP participants were identified. The researchers then compared how often they used health care services before and after participating in the program, versus a demographically matched control group of almost 13,150 patients over a similar two-year period.
Based on the number of health care encounters in the studied period, 3RP participants had an average reduction of 43 percent in their use of health care services.
“Our study’s primary finding is that programs that train patients to elicit the relaxation response — specifically those taught at the BHI — can also dramatically reduce health care utilization,” said James E. Stahl of the MGH Institute for Technology Assessment, who led the study. “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.” Previously affiliated with the Benson-Henry Institute, Stahl is now based at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Now, Stahl says, it’s important to identify where the 3RP program is best suited for.
“I think of it this way: There are many gates to wellness, but not everyone is ready to walk through a particular gate at a given time. From a public health perspective, it is better to be prepared to offer these tools to people in their customary settings than to wait for them to seek out these interventions. For that reason, we feel that mind-body interventions — which are both low-cost and essentially risk-free — should perhaps be incorporated into regular preventive care,” Stahl said.
Benson added, “From the outset, our primary goal has been to enhance the health and well-being of people by counteracting the harmful effects of stress and alleviating the many diseases that are caused or exacerbated by stress. The challenge now is to disseminate these findings, which we feel will be of great interest to health care payors [such as insurance companies] and policy makers.”