On the Road Again

Published on March 8, 2021
Photo credit: Dino Reichmuth

It was only a year ago, in March 2020, that the spread of COVID-19 forced travel restrictions around the world.

Few who were traveling during those confusing weeks will forget the commotion that resulted. As borders closed and airlines announced flight cancellations, airports filled with people struggling to get home, and the lineups at security looked like scenes from a disaster movie. Some Americans abroad were stranded, unable to return home for weeks or months.

Then came the new normal, with stay-at-home measures and endless Zoom sessions.

In the year since, the inability to travel is high on the list of the disappointments of 2020. The lack of vacations, trips to see relatives, adventures, and even business travel has left many who like to move feeling restless and even depressed.

Data and research backs this up. A 2021 Washington State University study found that people who travel frequently report being 7% happier when asked about their overall well-being. A 2020 study published in Nature found that people who reported depression and anxiety experienced positive emotions after travel. Subsequent MRI scans observed these emotions in parts of the brain associated with new and diverse experiences.

Even planning a trip can boost happiness, and the positive experiences that come from travel are correlated with reduced stress, improved mood, a sense of well-being and bursts of creativity.

At Carrot Health, we also like to travel, and we became curious about the relationship between travel and health. Naturally, we looked into our data to see what we could learn. We examined consumer and social determinants of health data associated with different modes of travel. Our analysis, summarized in the table below, compared how consumer survey responses regarding travel preferences correlated with our Carrot Social Risk Grouper (SRG) scores for measuring the risk of loneliness, financial insecurity, discord at home, and other factors.

Correlations Between Travel and Social Risk Factors

Source: Carrot Health Social Risk Grouper®

We were struck by the fact that all categories of travelers showed a lower-than-average risk of poor health literacy. Perhaps travelers in general tend to be informed, educated, and/or curious about many things, including their health.

Not surprisingly, people who are frequent travelers and international travelers scored the lowest for risks across all SRG categories (i.e., financial insecurity, housing instability, etc.). Much of this can be explained by these groups’ higher socioeconomic status, which is strongly correlated with lower health risks across the spectrum. Loneliness risk, though, isn’t a proxy for socioeconomic status. We speculated that frequent or international travelers often engaged with other people, reducing feelings of isolation.

On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again

– Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again”

In contrast, people with an interest in traveling by RV scored very high in many social risk categories, with a few notable exceptions: unemployment risk, financial insecurity, and loneliness. This group’s lower risk of unemployment and financial insecurity probably speaks to the high cost of owning and maintaining an RV. Perhaps loneliness risk was mitigated by regular contact with others in RV camps and parking lots.

People who took casino vacations had the highest health risks across the most categories. Like RV travelers, they were less vulnerable to unemployment and financial insecurity, but they scored high on the risk of reduced socio-economic status, financial insecurity, and housing instability. Interestingly, their transportation needs were strikingly high. Given the availability of free shuttles to casinos, it’s likely that casino operators understand this need well.

What can health plans and care providers learn from this analysis? First, people who travel are generally more educated about their health and less lonely, which makes it likely that they will be easier to engage as patients. However, the lack of travel in the past year may have hit these people hard, exacerbating loneliness and its well-documented impact on health.

Health plans and care providers can also posit that certain types of travelers will have higher health risks than others – and ask questions or consider interventions accordingly. For example, they can learn from casino operators. and provide transportation for people who are more challenged by that need.

Most importantly, they can encourage travel when everyone is vaccinated, and social distancing is no longer as necessary. The benefits of travel are in the data, and there’s a whole world waiting for us to visit and explore.

Add a comment