OPINION26 October 2017

Behaviour change for healthcare comms research

Behavioural science Healthcare Opinion UK

Healthcare brands are competing on the margins for success so for marketing professionals, campaigns and interventions need to be much more targeted to create behaviour. By Pamela Walker and Sarah Angus.

healthcare workers walking along a hospital corridor

We rely on market research to deliver the necessary insight to make this possible, however, gone are the days when traditional research can offer the level of insight needed to propel brands to success.

The challenge is therefore set. Fortunately, we have at our fingertips in-depth knowledge of what makes people tick and a perspective that can be applied to an entire programme of market research to bring about the desired behavioural outcome: brand uptake, brand switch, brand loyalty, compliance, etc.

Whatever the required behavioural shift, we can apply a simple model, framework, and checklists to improve the usefulness of insight and the impact of recommended actions on outcomes.

Optimising research design

Behaviour change principles are critical at this first step. How we unpick a business issue or brand challenge needs to focus on the behavioural outcome we are trying to achieve. Three simple questions should be asked:

  1. What is the specific behaviour we are looking to create/change?
  2. What are the current, predominant behavioural biases at play?
  3. Which behavioural biases could we leverage?

A model for behaviour change:

Be model

Behavioural outcomes: To ensure actions can be meaningful you need to start here and work backwards

Mental processing: To determine current barriers and drivers of behaviour, research needs to explore why people behave as they do today – which of the six key biases are at play?

  • Incentive: Incentives are highly influential on decision making. Our evaluation of them is not always rational
  • Default: We are creatures of habit and follow ingrained behaviours
  • Self-Efficacy: We need to believe we can do something to do it
  • Loss Aversion: People prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains
  • Affect: How we feel influences how we think and the decisions we make
  • Effort: We are inherently lazy and want to expend minimal energy if we can.

Decision frame: We can then explore what can be done to overcome or leverage the key biases to drive the desired behavioural outcome.

Once ‘data’ is collected, applying a focused behaviour change analysis framework (alongside traditional measures as appropriate) is key. There is no one size fits all approach. The framework is bespoke and based on customer success criteria captured during the research itself.

Looking at current behaviours of non-users vs. users can help to identify the behavioural biases you need to overcome or those you can more easily leverage.

For example, if we are ultimately hoping for a physician to prescribe a new brand, it is important that the success criteria encompass what physicians need to see/believe/feel to prescribe. 

Depending on the therapy area and the competitive landscape these could be anything from a specific patient outcome (acting as an ‘incentive’ to prescribe something new/different) to a treatment that is easier for both the physician and patient (reducing the ‘effort’ involved in treating/prescribing) or one that provides a sense of empowerment for the physician (e.g., a novel, targeted option offering an emotional incentive to prescribe via ‘affect’). 

These behavioural criteria – we recommend keeping it to the top three – should sit alongside any brand or communication objectives so that whatever the outcome, the brand can still stay true to itself.

Combining these alongside traditional measures – such as differentiation and motivation – gives you a robust and meaningful framework on which to assess the performance of communications. High performance across the criteria ensures a cohesive and powerful campaign that can effectively change behaviour in favour of your brand. 

For example, the framework may look like this:



How well the communications …

Traditional criteria


Own a unique space vs. competitors  


Make physicians consider using the brand at a given point in the treatment algorithm

Campaign success criteria

Brand ambition

Fit with and portray the brand ambition and positioning

Key brand values

Eg. Superior efficacy, convenient administration, long term tolerability

Communicate the key values that differentiate the brand versus competitors 

Behaviour change criteria

Patient outcomes

Communicate the ability of the brand to achieve a specific patient outcome and incentivise use

Ease of use

Make the brand seem easier to prescribe/use than competitors 

Novel, targeted option

Make physicians feel empowered by prescribing the brand


Focused outputs and interventions

The behaviour change model guides the development of the most appropriate (and highly focused) interventions.

Again, this process is bespoke based on the biases in play, landscape, and scope for initiatives. A few top tips to bear in mind at this stage, in addition to the analysis outputs:

  1. Re-confirm the desired behaviour you are looking to change – what does the intervention need to achieve?
  2. Be as specific as possible – always think about who, what, when, where, why and how?
  3. Don’t lose sight of social norms and contextual factors – where possible use these to your advantage.

A carefully designed intervention or campaign can fall short if the execution is not carefully aligned with the design strategy. A large part of this is engaging all key internal stakeholders so that the path to brand success is shared by those involved, especially at the coalface.

With ever tightening purse strings we need to be careful not to miss the value of a more targeted approach to communications research. While this can take more investment, especially in terms of time upfront, it has the power to deliver greater success in both the short and long term.

Dr Pamela Walker is director and head of health and Sarah Angus is principal at Incite