Voils and Mintz Awarded NIH Grant that Will Aid Planning of a Weight Loss Trial Using Personalized Levels of Incentives

Obesity affects 2 out of 5 American adults and causes an increased risk for a wide variety of serious diseases and health conditions, including those that can lead to stroke, heart attack, and death. While interventions that focus on methods to improve diet and exercise, such as logging calories and self-weighing, can lead to weight loss of at least 5% of total body weight, it can be hard to get people to stick with the intervention long enough to achieve both weight loss and the cardiovascular benefits that come with it. This is where research conducted by Corrine Voils, PhD, Professor in the Division of Minimally Invasive Surgery, Morgridge Distinguished Chair in Health Services Research, and Director of the Wisconsin Surgical Outcomes Research Program, comes in.

Voils’ research focuses on how to best promote long-term adherence to weight loss interventions.

“Providing small monetary incentives for behaviors such as calorie logging may help improve adherence, but the issue is that different people may respond to different levels of incentives,” explained Voils. “For example, some may receive too little money to effectively change their behavior, whereas other people will change their behavior for less money, and some may not respond to money-based incentives at all. To make these interventions cost-effective, we need to be able to identify the people who are likely to lose weight in response to financial incentives and determine the exact incentive amounts for each person that will produce the necessary changes in their behavior.”

Voils teamed up with Yonatan Mintz, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the UW Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, who used data from a previous study Voils conducted to create an algorithm that learns who responds to incentives and how much they may need each week to achieve significant weight loss. Voils and Mintz recently received a three-year, nearly $718,000 planning (R34) grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to continue this work.

Voils’ long-term goal is to conduct a clinical trial to determine whether tailoring incentive levels to the individual leads to greater weight loss compared to giving all people the same amount of money. In order to design and conduct that future trial, Voils and Mintz will use funding from the planning grant to support the expansion of a digital health platform to accommodate an algorithm for calculating personalized financial incentives, test the feasibility of implementing this algorithm, and determine if this approach will be acceptable to study participants.

“The planning grant will give us the pilot data we need to ensure that our future clinical trial is properly designed and can be effectively carried out. If it’s successful, personalized incentives in a weight loss intervention could be used to maximally benefit those who participate to ensure they achieve weight loss goals that will improve their overall health. It will also maximize the return on investment that is made by healthcare payors who invest in weight loss interventions for people covered under their health insurance programs,” said Voils.