ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Every year thousands of sick kids are granted wishes from the Make-A-Wish Foundation - trips to Disney World, meeting a favorite celebrity. And while that's a feel-good thing, a new study suggests those experiences might actually keep those kids from unplanned hospital stays or trips to the ER. Dr. Anup Patel is chief of neurology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and he led the study. Dr. Patel, welcome.
ANUP PATEL: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: So your research looked at about a thousand children with serious illnesses. About half received a wish. Half didn't. They were all treated by the same medical staff. They had similar kinds of ailments. What did you find?
PATEL: So what we found was that patients who received the wish were two and a half times more likely to have less hospitalizations following receiving their wish and about two times less likely to have to come to the emergency department for their medical care.
SHAPIRO: You also looked at the cost of granting these wishes compared to the cost savings of not going to the hospital or the ER these extra times. What did you find?
PATEL: Yeah, in regards to cost, what we wanted to do is to reflect what potential savings could there be seen in the health care system. And so what we did was we took their charges for the kids who got wishes and compared those again to the kids who didn't get wishes. And over that same time period, if you were a wish kid, you were twice as likely to have a decreased health care cost compared to those kids who didn't have wishes.
But we didn't stop there. We thought, you know, the wish is an actual expense. And it's an investment into the person's health care. So we accounted for the $10,300 that the wish experience on average would cost. And even when you account for that investment on the front end, you still have a twice as high likelihood of recouping that and a lot more on the back end.
SHAPIRO: Explain why something like a trip to Disney World would make a child less likely to need to be hospitalized for cancer or seizures or other serious illnesses.
PATEL: Yeah, you know, Ari, that's probably the biggest question of the day. We're not quite sure exactly why we saw the results we saw. I do have some ideas though. When I look at the analysis - and if I look at other papers or other work that's being done in this area - we know health care is more than just receiving a medication. There is a well-being that comes from your interpersonal ability to cope with your illness and deal with things. And we're starting to scratch the surface in this area and the positivity that can come across with health care and illness when you have experiences that mean something to you.
SHAPIRO: You're talking about, like, the mind-body-spirit connection - something that's really hard to measure.
PATEL: That's correct, yeah. And those are things that are hard to put a return on investment or a specific outcome metric on. But we do feel and know there's that mind-body connection there - and spirit. And so therefore this potentially is the first study of its kind that actually shows an outcome measure as it relates to where that connection can lead us as individuals.
SHAPIRO: There are a lot of kids with serious illnesses who don't get the kind of once-in-a-lifetime wish that we're talking about. Are there larger lessons for hospitals, for parents of sick kids that come out of the study even if you're not going to take somebody to meet their favorite celebrity, for example?
PATEL: Yeah, I think that's a great question. And I think the answer I would want everyone to know is no matter if you can get a wish from a wish organization or not, make sure we have opportunities for our kids when they're patients to have a break from being that patient - give them an opportunity to be a child whether it's for an hour or two hours. But give them a break from their illness.
The other benefit that we see from the wish experience is it allows the child to give back to the family. Families make huge sacrifices for kids when they have chronic illnesses. And often my children - my patients that I take care of say to me, I want to be able to give back to my family because they've sacrificed so much. And doing certain activities, like wishes or wish experiences or activities that are similar, I think can have a lasting impact on children.
SHAPIRO: You're trying to scientifically measure something that you see and interact with everyday. Can you tell me subjectively what you see when people come back from the experience of having one of these wishes granted?
PATEL: Yeah, I'll tell you it's probably the best part of my job. It's wonderful seeing these kids come back. They come back with a sense of hope and a sense of power. I will tell you - you know, I take care of kids clinically here at Nationwide Children's Hospital that have about a 1 to 3 percent chance of seizure freedom - no matter what I do for their treatment plan. It can be very emotionally draining to, you know, participate in care that has such minimal responses.
And so from a medical provider, I know that I don't have a lot to offer. So sometimes when I'm able to offer this, it gives me excitement and happiness and hope because I know I can at least give them something that is going to have meaning. And now I can give them something that's going to potentially help save health care dollars and, more importantly, keep kids where they belong, which is at home with their families.
SHAPIRO: Dr. Patel, thanks so much for talking with us today.
PATEL: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate the time.
SHAPIRO: Dr. Anup Patel is chief of neurology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
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