How incentives could better treat stimulant use disorder

Researchers at Penn Medicine are working to update contingency management protocols and dissemination practices that focus on incentivizing behavior for patients.

Are gift cards and cash one way to help ease the drug overdose crisis?

The number of overdose deaths in the United States has doubled since 2015, exceeding 106,000 deaths in 2023. Although the overdose crisis is commonly referred to as the “opioid” overdose crisis, by 2021 approximately 50 percent of overdose-death toxicology reports showed evidence of recent use of cocaine or methamphetamine. This emergence of stimulants is often referred to as the “fourth wave” of the overdose crisis.

A doctor with a patient.
Image: iStock/ARMMY PICCA

Although research has been underway for more than three decades to develop medications for people addicted to cocaine and methamphetamine, to date, none have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, one group of Penn Medicine researchers advocates building on the success of a national program in the VA and efforts in California to increase access to a treatment called contingency management.

Contingency management (CM) is a form of behavioral economics developed in the 1990s that focuses on incentivizing behavior for patients, such as receiving a prize or a cash reward, when they prove through biological testing that they have not used stimulants.

The concept is as simple as it appears to be powerful: Pay for a desired outcome. Penn Medicine researchers regularly pursue incentives for everything from smoking cessation to improving patient services in a health care setting.

Gabriela Khazanov, a research associate with the Penn Center for Mental Health and associate fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics, and James McKay, a professor of psychology in psychiatry, recently published a viewpoint in the journal Addiction making the case that researchers and clinicians should consider updating CM protocols and dissemination practices.

“These are recommendations that should be considered alongside guardrails to ensure that CM is being delivered with fidelity to its basic principles,” Khazanov says. “This is an attempt to adapt CM to our current situation, as stimulant use is rising at a rate faster than current CM protocols can keep up.”

Specifically, they recommend adaptations that include equal parts bureaucracy and technology: requiring Medicaid and private insurers to bill for CM services, using federal or state funds to pay for incentives, encouraging longer durations of CM (California uses a 24-week protocol instead of a more typical 12-week protocol), reconsidering guidelines for when patients can repeat CM or reengage following periods of drug use, and modifying protocols to prioritize engaging and retaining patients in treatment.

While CM has been in place for some time, the practice has come with some questions. 

“There have been concerns that CM is ‘paying patients for something they should be doing anyway’ but the fact is that incentivizing abstinence is effective and acceptable to patients and providers,” McKay says. The next step, according to McKay, should be to further refine CM protocols and improve access to the treatment so that it has the potential to reduce population-level stimulant use.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.