New Year's Resolutions, Procrastination and Public Health

I suspect we've all made resolutions at some point, but studies show most of us fail to accomplish our goals. I mean, is Lindsay Lohan really going to stick to this? I give her until St. Patrick's Day, but I digress.

In a recent article, The Economist suggests that a major reason for our failure to accomplish our goals is that we have a tendency to procrastinate; no surprise there. We tend to put off unpleasant or costly things into the future. That would be OK if we would stick to a single delay, but it turns out that we are time-inconsistent or “present-biased” and will always put off tough or costly things to the next day. Tomorrow really is always a day away. They reference a paper by O’Donoghue and Rabin.

I suspect this tendency is at the heart of the public health problems we have in the US. When you build a road you have immediate gratification, but the gratification of a well-funded state health department is uncertain and certainly in the future. Perhaps a better example is one I suspect many of us in infection control will soon face: should we push our administration to restock our N95 mask cache that we used to meet the OSHA/CDC/IOM requirement to care for suspected H1N1 cases? Avian flu is still out there and is just as likely to become a pandemic as it was last year.

This issue really concerns me. Even in this mild pandemic, we all saw how quickly the supply chains dried up for critical supplies. However, I suspect that hospital administrators will assume that the next pandemic will be this mild or forget the supply chain difficulties we had. Even more of a concern for me is procrastination. Will they assume that they can delay purchasing N95s for a cache because we just had a pandemic so the next one won't happen soon? They can "wait 'til next year" just like our favorite Cubs fan. The problem is that next year they will wait until next year.

Fortunately, the Economist and authors Duflo, Kremer and Robinson offer a potential solution using an example of why so few African farmers use fertilizer and how this can be improved. The quick answer is that the tendency to procrastinate can be overcome by small upfront time-limited subsidies. This small investment ends up being far less costly than doing nothing or offering a larger subsidy later in the year. What this suggests is that public officials should offer a grant to hospitals who invest in their pandemic cache (mask, antivirals etc) in the next year, but remove the subsidy quickly. This could overcome the inertia to do nothing because of pandemic fatigue or procrastination. Of course, how can we overcome our public officials' tendency to procrastinate? They do have bridges to fix. Thoughts?


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