Today I told my first-grade daughter that she has a dentist appointment coming up later this week. Her response? "Yay! I love going to the dentist!"

Why does she look forward to something that should otherwise inspire indifference or even dread? That's simple. She looks forward to the "treasure box" at the end of the appointment. And she knows she's allowed to pick two things out of the box, not just one.

The prizes in that hallowed treasure box are cheap: rings with fake jewels, temporary tattoos, colorful string bracelets, simple plastic animal figurines. That doesn't matter. It's more about the anticipation of the reward for good behavior, and then the thrill of the selection process as she takes her time rifling through the box. She may toss aside those prizes the very next day, never to pay attention to them again, but that's okay. They served their purpose.

Does this simple reward mechanism work only on kids? Of course not. We never really grow up when it comes to enjoying the fun factor associated with rewards and freebies. Their motivational impact doesn't really wear off. The prizes need to change of course, as a plastic ring no longer cuts it for us, but the prizes don't need to be all that much more than a plastic ring.

I think back to all the medical conferences I've attended and recall the lines that formed at booths that offered free t-shirts in exchange for personal contact information. The t-shirts weren't even that nice, and we're talking about physicians in the 1%.

I laugh at the long line that forms outside of the Baskin-Robbins during their "free cone day" in a neighboring town. The town is one of the wealthiest in the country. Many of the parents waiting in line with their kids could afford to buy the entire shop, forget a single cone. So why bother to line up? It's fun. There's the anticipation factor, and the enjoyment of that experience with everyone else waiting in line. And then there's that selection process to look forward to...what flavor?

I get that feeling myself when I go to my credit card company's online rewards mall to redeem points. Hmm...which gift card am I going to choose? Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, Barnes & Noble? I could just get cash back, but that's kind of boring, and then the cash might simply go towards paying a bill. A Williams-Sonoma gift card, on the other hand, is much more fun. The key here is luxury over utility, and the ability to choose.

So maybe doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and the rest of the healthcare industry should pay more attention to the tactics of pediatric dentists when it comes to encouraging healthier behaviors. We're really all just big kids.

About the Author

Katrina S. Firlik, M.D.

Katrina S. Firlik, M.D. is a neurosurgeon-turned-entrepreneur, co-founder of HealthPrize Technologies, & author of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside.

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