A new research study shows that a little yoga or meditation a day might just keep the doctor away.
Stress-related health problems are responsible for up to 80% of visits to the doctor and account for the third highest health care expenditures, behind only heart disease and cancer. But as few as 3% of doctors actually talk to patients about how to reduce stress.
Mind-body practices like yoga and meditation have been shown to reduce your body’s stress response by strengthening your relaxation response and lowering stress hormones like cortisol. Yoga has been shown to have many health benefits, including improving heart health and helping relieve depression and anxiety.
But the cost-effectiveness of these therapies has been less well demonstrated — until now.
Dr. James E. Stahl and his team of Harvard researchers studied a mind-body relaxation program offered through the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. The 8-week program taught participants several different mind-body approaches, including meditation, yoga, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral skills, and positive psychology. The study volunteers participated in weekly sessions and practiced at home as well.
The researchers found that people in the relaxation program used 43% fewer medical services than they did the previous year, saving on average $2,360 per person in emergency room visits alone. This means that such yoga and meditation programs could translate into health care savings of anywhere from $640 to as much as $25,500 per patient each year.
“There are many ways to get to the well state — many gates to wellness, but not every gate is open to every person. One of the strengths of the program is that it draws upon many different tools that reinforce each other and allow many gates to be opened to a wide array of people,” says principal investigator Dr. Stahl, who is now section chief of general internal medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Yoga and meditation are soaring in popularity — but will insurance pay?
Yoga and meditation programs are gaining wide appeal. Nearly one in 10 Americans practices yoga, and 45% of adults who don’t practice yoga say they are interested in trying it. Americans are also using other forms of complementary health therapies, such as meditation (8%) and deep breathing (11%).
Many health care plans do not cover yoga or meditation, although some provide discounts for fitness programs including yoga or tai chi. States like Washington require private health insurers to cover licensed complementary health care providers, but the majority of states do not. However, that may soon change.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review recommends that health insurers cover wellness and prevention-oriented therapies that are both low-cost and evidence-based, as both yoga and meditation are. The article discusses a study of Aetna employees who participated in the company’s mindfulness program and enjoyed a 28% reduction in stress, 20% better sleep, and 19% less pain, as well as an increase in worker productivity worth an estimated $3,000 per employee per year. The company offers free yoga and meditation programs to its employees.
“There are a lot of great studies on the biologic side, just not enough on the economics,” notes Dr. Stahl, who is looking to change that with his ongoing research. As the evidence for the health benefits and cost-effectiveness of yoga and meditation programs continues to grow, we can expect to see more interest from health care insurers.
“If I have a tool that works in clinical medicine that has very little side effects and considerable benefit, why would I not use the tool?” Dr. Stahl says.