Learning how to relax effectively can save you trips to the doctor, finds a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Institute for Technology Assessment and the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine. The study investigated whether participants in MGH’s Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (3RP) used fewer health care services after completing the program. 3RP trains participants in eliciting a relaxation response, the opposite of the fight-or-flight response associated with anxiety and other stress-related disorders. The results reveal that the program participants used fewer health care services in the year following the program.
The researchers used data from a registry of de-identified patient information drawn from facilities in Massachusetts. They analyzed the records of over 4,400 participants of the 3RP program and 13,000 controls, comparing the frequency with which patients accessed health care for a two-year period. They also compared a subgroup of 3RP participants to controls whose frequency of care matched that of the 3RP participants. This allowed the research team to address the possibility that 3RP patients were more frequent users of health care overall. Healthcare encounters in any setting, including lab tests and imaging studies, were counted towards the frequency of care.
In the year following the 3RP intervention, program participants’ use of care decreased by an average of 43 percent. The control group had an overall, but not statistically significant, increase in health care services. The subgroup of 3RP participants matched for care usage with controls demonstrated a reduction of service utilization by about 25 percent. The 3RP participants exhibited the greatest reductions in use of neurologic, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal 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. 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 no real risk,” stated study leader James E. Stahl, MD, of the MGH.
The study demonstrates that stress-reduction programs may be useful for some patients. The researchers note that stress-related illnesses are the third highest causes of health expenditures in the United States. Based on the study results, the researchers estimate that the cost of 3RP was offset by the reduction in service utilization in about six months.
This research is published in the journal PLOS One.
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