Alison M. Buttenheim, PhD, MBA
Alison M. Buttenheim wants to understand how people make decisions about their health and focuses her research on the use of behavioral economics to increase the uptake of evidence-based care. Her work ranges from how households in Peru decide whether to apply insecticide to eliminate a disease-carrying insect vector to why parents in the United States request exemptions from child immunization laws.
“I am excited by the challenge of applying behavioral insights to prevent disease and improve health.”
- PhD, University of California at Los Angeles, 2007
- MBA, Stanford University, 1997
- BA, Yale University , 1992
Through her involvement with Penn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, Dr. Buttenheim is working with colleagues in epidemiology, politics, statistics, and mathematics on an NIH-funded study to reduce the transmission of Chagas disease (a neglected topical parasitic disease) in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. The study aims both to eliminate transmission of the parasite and to use behavioral economics to understand factors that influence residents’ decisions about having their homes sprayed with insecticide.
In a large pragmatic randomized trial, households were assigned to one of three interventions: improving the schedule for spraying; creating social norms for spraying; and participating in a lottery that offered financial rewards for spraying. Data analysis is underway. Dr. Buttenheim and colleagues hope that study findings will help address other common and emerging problems such as bed bugs or the Zika virus.
Vaccination Exemption Rates and Unvaccinated Children
With funding from NIH, Dr. Buttenheim studied California laws on nonmedical exemptions from school-mandated immunizations. After examining school records, she found that 47 percent of children whose parents requested exemptions had received the first dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. This suggests that using exemption rates as a proxy for vaccination rates is misleading; and, importantly, that the risk of disease in unvaccinated populations is therefore higher than previously thought. Colleagues in biostatistics and epidemiology participated in this study.
With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Buttenheim is part of an interdisciplinary team analyzing vaccination exemption laws in several states. The team’s goal is to identify ideal state-level exemption legislation.
Opportunities to Learn and Collaborate at Penn Nursing
After starting out as a health care management consultant, Dr. Buttenheim earned her MBA and her PhD, joining the Penn Nursing faculty in 2011. She values the cross-disciplinary culture at Penn Nursing, which allows her to teach graduate public health and epidemiology courses. She teaches in the undergraduate clinical course in community nursing in which “the population is the patient,” helping students develop skills in community needs assessment, screening, outbreak investigation, and health behavior change interventions.
Dr. Buttenheim directs the Behavioral Economics and Nursing “Lab,” a group of nursing doctoral and postdoctoral fellows interested in applying behavioral insights in their program of research. Students can discuss recent literature in the field, present work-in-progress, collaborate on grant proposals, and hear from some of the leading experts in the field.
Graduate and undergraduate students assist Dr. Buttenheim with her research, including writing grants, creating surveys, and analyzing data. She also mentors graduate public health students completing capstone projects.
Selected Career Highlights
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar
- Recipient, Student Undergraduate Research Group Grant
- Phase 1 Reviewer and Standing Panelist, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute
- Best, K.M., Jarrin, O., Buttenheim, A.M., Bowles, K., Curley, M.A.Q. (2015). Innovation in creating a strategic plan for research within an academic community. Nursing Outlook, 63(4), 456-461.10.1016/j.outlook.2015.01.005
- Wheeler, M., and Buttenheim, A.M. (2014). Ready or not? School preparedness for California’s new personal beliefs exemption law. Vaccine, 32(22), 2563-2569.
- Barbu, C.M, Buttenheim, A., Pumahuanca, M., Calderon, J.E., Salazar, R., Carrion, M., Rospigliossi, A., Chavez, F.S., Alvarez, K.O., delCarpio, J., Naquira, C., Levy, MZ. (2014). Residual infestation and recolonization during urban Triatoma infestans bug control campaign, Peru.. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 20(12), 2055-2063.10.3201/eid2012.131820
- Wang, E., Clymer, J., Davis-Hayes, C. and Buttenheim, A. (2014). Nonmedical exemptions from school immunization requirements: A systemic review.. American Journal of Public Health, 104(11), 62-84.10.2105/AJPH.2014302190
- Jones, M. and Buttenheim, A. (2014). Potential effects of California’s new vaccine exemption law on the prevalence and clustering of exemptions.. American Journal of Public Health, 104(9), 42435.10.2105/AJPH.2014.302065
- Buttenheim, A.M., Paz-Soldan, V., Barbu, C.M., Skovira, C., & Levy, M.Z. (2014). Is participation contagious? Evidence from a household vector control campaign in Peru. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 68(2), 103-109.
- Su, A. & Buttenheim, A. (2014). Maintenance of smoking cessation in the postpartum period: Which interventions work best in the long-term?. Maternal & Child Health Journal, 18(3), 714-728.
- Taylor, N.K., & Buttenheim, A.M. (2013). Improving utilization of and retention in PMTCT services: Can behavioral economics help?. BMC Public Health, 13, e406.
- Buttenheim, A.M., & Asch, D.A. (2013). Making vaccine refusal less of a free ride. Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics, 9(12), 2674-5.
- Wheeler, M.C., & Buttenheim A.M. (2013). Vaccine concerns and intentions to vaccinate: The relationship between concerns, information source and schedule choice. Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics, 9(8), 1782-1789.