As healthcare marketers, we know crafting compelling stories can help change healthcare professionals' behaviors and that changing those behaviors is crucially important to accomplishing our customers' goals—but how do we know which behaviors to target? And how do we actually influence behaviors? To tackle these questions, we look to behavioral economics.

People: Predictably Irrational

The work of Richard Thaler, 2017 Nobel Laureate and pioneer in behavioral economics, demonstrates that people are predictably irrational—reliably acting in ways that defy traditional economic theories. For healthcare professionals (HCPs), this predictable irrationality can manifest in all sorts of biases resulting in behaviors we in healthcare marketing look to change.

For example, physicians are often more persuaded by the low probability of a drug’s potential severe side effect than by the high probability of that same drug’s benefits. They can possess a “last-case bias,” meaning their beliefs about diagnoses are more influenced by recent events than remote ones. They may also have “availability bias,” causing them to weigh the likelihood of a diagnosis by how easily it can be recalled (which helps explain why rare diseases are so often misdiagnosed).

How Behavior Works: The COM-B System

We now move to the second question: How do we actually influence behaviors? For this, we look to the COM-B System. Conceptualized by Susan Michie and colleagues, COM-B posits that people need the capability, opportunity, and motivation to perform a particular behavior. Capability is the individual’s psychological and physical capacity to engage in a behavior. This is where cognitive load comes into play. Then there’s opportunity: the environmental factors that lie outside the individual and either make the behavior possible or prompt it. Imagine an emergency room vs a family practice setting, for example. Finally, we have motivation, or brain processes that energize and direct our behavior. Motivation is where medical storytelling can really make a difference.

COM-B system

Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: a new method
for characterising and designing behaviour change. Implement Sci. 2011;6:42.

Medical Storytelling: Motivating Physicians to Action

Renowned psychiatrist and economist Paul Zak has demonstrated that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during tense moments in a story, allowing us to focus, while happy moments stimulate the release of oxytocin, the “feel-good” chemical promoting emotional connection and empathy. Specifically, oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others by enhancing our sense of empathy.

By analyzing blood samples drawn before and after exposure to a narrative, Zak found that character-driven stories consistently promote oxytocin synthesis and thus move people to action. Additionally, his research shows that character-driven stories with emotional content, as well as tension, result in a better understanding of the key points and enable better recall of them later. Zak advises marketers to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story. Why should HCPs care about the new product you are launching? How does it improve their patients’ lives?

Applying Zak’s research, along with the COM-B System and behavioral economics, will help you identify what you are truly trying to achieve, and thus enable you to craft a compelling, compliant, and balanced medical story that appeals to your audience, sticks in their memory, and most importantly, inspires them to think and act differently.



About the author

Philippe Vitat

Philippe has over two decades of industry experience in biological, diagnostic, and pharmaceutical product launch promotion, both in the United States and Europe. With 35 published original manuscripts for clinical reviews, journal supplements, educational monographs, and white papers, Philippe has also honed a specific expertise in scientific content development for a variety of multichannel tactical deliverables.

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