There's really nothing more rewarding in life than finally getting that free sandwich after weeks of noshing at the same sub joint for lunch. Or, finally grabbing that free voucher to fly to wherever your heart desires following hours spent crammed into coach while thousands of feet in the air. Maybe it's time that health care took a page from the service industry by rewarding patients for staying on top of their health.

One New Jersey hospital is running with that idea and trying a different carrot to get patients to follow the doctor's orders. Jersey City Medical Center — a teaching hospital that's part of LibertyHealth system — is rewarding "points" to patients with one of 13 different chronic conditions, as away to better engage patients through its accountable care organization. When a diabetic patient, for example, picks up his prescription or makes a doctor's appointment, he accumulates points to eventually redeem for gift cards to retailers such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Local Jersey City businesses are involved in the Wealth from Health program, too, offering discounted gym memberships to participants, or a price break for those who buy healthy options at neighborhood restaurants.

"People have very busy lives, and the point system is really just to push health a little bit higher on everybody's day-to-day priority list," says Susan Walsh, ACO medical director for Jersey City Medical Center.

The initial patient rewards programs actually date back decades, and Jersey City's is based on a paper-based program developed at a previous employer of Doug Ratner, M.D., who now works as chairman of medicine at hospital. Last year, the organization rolled out a more modernized, Web-based version of the program that patients can easily manage from their desktop computer. Interest has been high, with almost 400 patients already enrolling, and hopes of adding another 100 before the year ends.

Clinical results have been promising, too, as participants have avoided inappropriate emergency department visits, going 13 percent to 31 percent less, depending on the condition, compared to before they joined. Now, LibertyHealth is eying other ways to make use of the points system, Walsh says. They're experimenting with having paramedics educate patients about Wealth from Health when making house calls to patients with chronic conditions, while also surveying homes to make sure they're safe — looking for loose banisters, testing for lead, installing smoke detectors, etc. And next year, they're also rolling out a school-based program that caters to children with asthma.

As for the financial return on investment, Walsh says the program is operating in the red in its early stages. But she feels confident that it will eventually pay for itself as patients receive care in the appropriate setting, avoiding the ED and unnecessary readmissions.

"Considering how new we are, it's probably still costing more than it's saving, but it's hard to put a price tag on the enthusiasm among patients and how their families feel that they're now receiving that sort of extra personal touch," Walsh says. "I'm hoping, as our numbers grow larger and we can start comparing ourselves to the population as a whole, that I'll be able to show that there are real savings."

What do you think? Has your hospital experimented with a similar approach? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and watch for more on this topic in the November issue of Hospitals & Health Networks.