Healthcare marketing strategy planning should account for irrational behavior

Human beings can sometimes behave irrationally. This shouldn't come as a news flash, but many patient education and healthcare marketing efforts fail to take it into account.

Behavioral economics, a field of study that revolves around the human behavior that arises as a result of irrational decision-making, can be immensely beneficial in terms of optimizing physician/patient communication. As Medical Marketing & Media contributors Boris Kushkuley and Talya Miron-Shatz phrased it, understanding the biases that lie at the root of patients' poor choices "is the first step toward taking advantage of [these biases] for the benefit of both customers and marketers."

"Marketers are always eager to find approaches that positively impact patient experience." 

Marketers are always eager to find approaches that positively impact the way patients experience their brands. So, what tenets of behavioral economics should healthcare marketing agency members keep in mind when it comes to achieving this goal?

1. Instant gratification
Fact: People are naturally biased toward short-term rewards and weigh future benefits as less valuable.

A real-world example: At this time of year, many people are focusing on developing their summer bodies ahead of swimsuit season. However, when it comes to choosing between that tub of ice cream in the fridge and the promise of looking good on the beach in a couple of months, many people choose the former… and then regret that decision down the line.

Healthcare marketing takeaway: Kushkuley and Miron-Shatz pointed out that this bias is relevant to many healthcare products and behaviors.

"Not taking one's meds, not exercising and not eating healthy foods are often more immediately gratifying than actually doing all those things," they acknowledged. "So, we as marketers have to spend more time thinking about short-term rewards, rather than pounding patients with all the reasons why it makes sense for them to be compliant in the long run. We need to find ways of rewarding them now for doing so."

2. More isn't always better
Fact: People appreciate having the ability to make their own choices, but if they're given too wide an array of options, inertia may take hold.

A real-world example: Many restaurants' dessert menus feature several different items. For instance, a menu may include chocolate cake, cheesecake, tiramisu and ice cream. This is a manageable number of options that people can easily navigate. If the restaurant were to provide a list of 50 different kinds of cake, patrons would be more likely to get overwhelmed and decide they don't want dessert after all in order to avoid having to make a choice.

Healthcare marketing takeaway: To understand how the ideas of choice overload and decision fatigue apply to healthcare, replace the desserts in the example above with treatment options.

"If we as marketers really want to see our customers following the paths we are encouraging, we need to fall out of love with offering too many choices," Kushkuley and Miron-Shatz asserted.

Too many choices can be overwhelming.Too many choices can be overwhelming. 

3. Loss aversion is a powerful motivator
Fact: People experience the pain of loss more acutely than the pleasure of gain. As a result, they will be more motivated to avoid losing something than to strive toward gaining something.

A real-world example: To encourage their children to get better grades, some parents promise rewards in exchange for good report cards at the end of the semester - for instance, a certain amount of money for every A-grade. Rewarding positive behavior with something good is an approach that psychologist B.F. Skinner called "positive reinforcement," as outlined by Simply Psychology. The opposite approach is negative reinforcement, which involves promoting positive behavior by removing something unpleasant. For example, parents might threaten to cut off their kids' allowance if they don't get good grades. In this example, getting good grades (the positive behavior) allows a child to avoid the unpleasant prospect of losing his or her allowance. Studies have shown that loss aversion is a more powerful motivator than the promise of gain, so students motivated to avoid losing their allowance will likely perform better in school than those promised money for every A-grade.

Healthcare marketing takeaway: Despite medical professionals' best efforts, many patients still engage in what's termed "irrational noncompliance" - for instance, they stop taking their medication, even though this puts them at risk of illness. Physicians frustrated by this phenomenon might want to take a look at how they present the importance of preventive tactics to their patients. Rather than framing the benefits of taking medication in positive reinforcement terms ("If you take your meds, you'll stay healthy"), they should incorporate the power of loss aversion and take a negative reinforcement approach ("If you take your meds, you'll be less likely to get sick").