Alison M. Buttenheim, PhD, MBA

Alison M. Buttenheim, PhD, MBA

Patricia Bleznak Silverstein and Howard A. Silverstein Term Endowed Professorship in Global Women’s Health

Professor of Nursing and Health Policy, Penn Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine

Director of Engagement, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics

Scientific Director, Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics

Associate Director, National Clinician Scholars Program

How can we use behavioral science to prevent infectious disease?

Using insights from behavioral economics and related disciplines, Dr. Buttenheim designs and trials interventions to change behaviors that are central to infectious disease prevention. Her work spans Chagas disease prevention campaigns in Peru and HIV testing and treatment efforts in South Africa to vaccine acceptance and COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the US.

I am motivated by the ongoing challenge of helping people change their behavior to improve health.


  • PhD, University of California at Los Angeles, 2007
  • MBA, Stanford University, 1997
  • BA, Yale University, 1992

Social Justice

Health behaviors are stronger predictors of health outcomes than genetics, environmental factors, or even access to medical care. Through her research, teaching, and community-based practice, Dr. Buttenheim is keenly interested in identifying and dismantling mechanisms that produce social disparities in unhealthy behaviors. In the US, she has studied how to implement incentives-based smoking cessation programs for pregnant Medicaid members, who currently don’t have widespread access to these evidence-based strategies. In her work on the National Academic of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s Committee on the Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Buttenheim joined others in calling for preferential allocation of limited vaccine supply to communities hardest hit by the virus. Dr. Buttenheim was one of the founding members of Bold Solutions, an initiative to dismantle racism and advance Black health. Along with Amy Summer and Dr. Chris Chesley, she chairs the joint CHIBE/PAIR Committee on Anti-Racism and Social Change.


Dr. Buttenheim designed and teaches Behavioral Economics and Health (NURS 613), a course that draws students from over a dozen different graduate programs across seven of Penn’s schools. Dr. Buttenheim has also taught Impact Evaluation of Global Health Programs (PUBH 554), Introduction to Principles and Methods of Epidemiology (N500), and Nursing in the Community (N380). She is a regular guest lecture in courses on global health, population health, behavioral science, intervention design, and implementation science.


Dr. Buttenheim’s research is focused on the application of behavioral insights to infectious disease prevention, and to the implementation of evidence-based practices in multiple domains. She has been continuously NIH-funded as PI or MPI since 2013 for projects on Chagas disease prevention, vaccine exemptions, dental behavior change, and mental health services delivery. With a particular interest in behaviorally-informed intervention design, Dr. Buttenheim has published multiple papers demonstrating the potential for behavioral insights and behavioral design to yield high-impact intervention designs.

Opportunities to Learn and Collaborate at Penn Nursing

Dr. Buttenheim is connected with multiple centers and programs across Penn’s campus that offer opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement and training. She is the Scientific Director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) and encourages interested students to participate in CHIBE’s offerings. She is a core faculty member in Penn’s Master of Public Health program, a research associate at the Population Studies Center, and a faculty affiliate of the Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences program in the School of Arts and Sciences. She is Director of Engagement for Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and Associate Director of Penn’s National Clinician Scholars Program. With Dr. Harsha Thirumurthy, Dr. Buttenheim leads Indlela, an HIV-focused “Nudge Unit” in South Africa, supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Selected Career Highlights

Accepting Mentees?

  • Yes

Accepting Fellows?

  • Yes

Selected Publications

  • Opel DJ, Brewer NT, Buttenheim AM, Callaghan T, Carpiano RM, Clinton C, Elharake JA, Flowers LC, Galvani AP, Hotez PJ, Schwartz JL. The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic for childhood vaccination in the USA. The Lancet. 2023 Jan 7;401(10370):75-8.

  • Chetty-Makkan CM, Thirumurthy H, Bair EF, Bokolo S, Day C, Wapenaar K, Werner J, Long L, Maughan-Brown B, Miot J, Pascoe SJ, Buttenheim AM. Quasi-experimental evaluation of a financial incentive for first-dose COVID-19 vaccination among adults aged≥ 60 years in South Africa. BMJ Global Health. 2022 Dec 1;7(12):e009625.

  • Buttenheim AM, Schmucker L, Marcus N, Phatsoane M, Msolomba V, Rhagnath N, Majam M, Venter F, Thirumurthy H. Planning and commitment prompts to encourage reporting of HIV self-test results: A cluster randomized pragmatic trial in Tshwane District, South Africa. PLOS Global Public Health. 2022 Oct 24;2(10):e0001196.

  • Milkman KL, Gandhi L, Ellis SF, Graci HN, Gromet DM, Mobarak RS, Buttenheim AM, Duckworth AL, Pope D, Stanford A, Thaler R. A citywide experiment testing the impact of geographically targeted, high-pay-off vaccine lotteries. Nature Human Behaviour. 2022 Sep 1:1-0

  • Brewer NT, Buttenheim AM, Clinton CV, Mello MM, Benjamin RM, Callaghan T, Caplan A, Carpiano RM, DiResta R, Elharake JA, Flowers LC. Incentives for COVID-19 vaccination. The Lancet Regional Health–Americas. 2022 Apr 1;8.

  • Thirumurthy H, Milkman KL, Volpp KG, Buttenheim AM, Pope DG. Association between statewide financial incentive programs and COVID-19 vaccination rates. PloS one. 2022 Mar 30;17(3):e0263425.

  • Leininger LJ, Albrecht SS, Buttenheim A, Dowd JB, Ritter AZ, Simanek AM, Valentino MJ, Jones M. Fight Like a Nerdy Girl: The Dear Pandemic Playbook for Combating Health Misinformation. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2022 Mar;36(3):563-7.

  • Albrecht SS, Aronowitz SV, Buttenheim AM, Coles S, Dowd JB, Hale L, Kumar A, Leininger L, Ritter AZ, Simanek AM, Whelan CB. Lessons Learned From Dear Pandemic, a Social Media–Based Science Communication Project Targeting the COVID-19 Infodemic. Public Health Reports. 2022 Mar 3: 00333549221076544.

  • Golos AM, Hopkins DJ, Bhanot SP, Buttenheim AM. Partisanship, Messaging, and the COVID-19 Vaccine: Evidence From Survey Experiments. Am J Health Promot. 2022 Mar 1: 08901171211049241.

  • Buttenheim A, Milkman KL, Duckworth AL, Gromet DM, Patel M, Chapman G. Effects of Ownership Text Message Wording and Reminders on Receipt of an Influenza Vaccination: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Jama Netw Open. 2022 Feb 1;5(2):e2143388-.

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