9 Dec 2019

How many decisions do you make each day? The answer is an astonishing 35,000 – and of all those decisions, only around 5% are made consciously. This opener sparked a lively discussion at Hanover Health’s recent Breakthrough Breakfast, an intimate roundtable exploring behavioural psychology and how beliefs, needs and values should underpin healthcare communications.

Hanover brought together behavioural psychologist, Katharina Wittgens, MD, of InnovationBubble with colleagues from across the healthcare industry – from payers to pharma to regulators – to discuss how we currently view our audiences and why we actually need to look at them as more rounded human beings. The session covered various internal biases that guide our decisions, nudge theory (and how it can go wrong), the ten universal human needs and how we can use those to create meaning, as well as beliefs and values, and how these factors work together to manifest in the behaviours we actually see.

As a communicator, the most gratifying aspect of the session for me was the engagement from the guests and discussion it sparked. One exercise in particular got the group discussing risk aversion – and how we often talk to patients about what they should do – we provide positive messaging but don’t always consider multiple perspectives. We were shown an image of a clifftop with a beachy lagoon below, including a bright sunny area and a dark shaded area. We were then asked where we would like to be within the image. Some people preferred the dark shady area, meaning that they were averse to risk (needing to be reassured), others wanted to look out from the clifftop to new horizons (seeking exploration and opportunity), while others wanted to be left alone to relax on the beach (pursuing pleasure). Typically, comms and marketing activities focus predominantly on the pleasure-seekers and, to an extent, the explorers. They rarely consider those in the shadows who need a surer understanding of their environment before making a decision. By focussing only on one or two groups, we saw clearly how we might be missing key needs that drive other segments of our audience. As we see patients driven to more health consumer-type behaviours, such as review seeking, we see a shining example of how they are addressing their need to reduce risk.

We don’t need to get rid of the facts – but rather we should wrap those verifiable facts in a story that will resonate with the audience based on their needs.

The second powerful outcome from the event was the appreciation of looking at audiences in a more holistic and cohesive way. All the guests who joined us used market research to inform their business decisions, but the majority of insight-gathering that people spoke about in the room was demographic. They talked about how campaigns they developed – or were developing – were generally driven by facts and, in some instances, specifically avoided building in emotion. Within a highly regulated industry such as pharma, the direction is understandable, but the key point about starting from a point of need and emotion is that we don’t need to get rid of the facts – but rather that we should wrap those verifiable facts in a story that will resonate with the audience based on their needs, so that they are more receptive to the message. This works not only with external audiences but internally as well. If we can meet the needs of our employees, they can better meet the needs of their stakeholders and – crucially – communicate this in a more impactful way.

Some of the most thought-provoking moments from the roundtable came when discussing real life examples and case studies to demonstrate some of the points we’d been talking about. Findings of psychological research unearthed factors that no amount of market research ever could: the idea that physicians were concerned with how an insulin pump would fit in the handbag of their female patients and how this might impact compliance, or the fact that diabetic patients prefer a monthly injection in their eyeball over a less invasive device, if it means they can regularly meet with their doctor to be reassured about their eyesight. These concerns impact day-to-day medical behaviour and we can address them easily through comms, but unless we are open to looking beyond rationality, we wouldn’t ever uncover them.

For businesses that have a tough problem to solve, or are facing a challenge that doesn’t seem to have a rational answer, looking more deeply into human psychology and understanding the needs of stakeholders could prove an exceptionally useful tool to help communicators approach the issue from a different perspective and create an efficient solution.