Boston, MA— In recent years, countless life science leaders have been exploring ways to harness the power of behavioral science to combat the looming threat of healthcare’s biggest challenges. Among the stars of this movement sit behavioral nudges: small, often subtle interventions or tweaks to a process or protocol designed to alter people’s behavior in a predictable way. Common examples include pre-commitment strategies, proactive digital reminders, peer-accountability, and even innovative incentives and gamification. Over the past decade, these approaches have garnered a good deal of attention inside and outside of healthcare, from former U.K. Prime Minister Cameron establishing a nudge unit back in 2010 to steer citizens towards making better decisions for Britain’s greater good to Penn Medicine’s nudge unit which stands as the world’s first behavioral design team embedded within a health system. And these approaches aren’t limited to the nonprofit sector: a few recent examples that spring to mind include Sanofi’s partnership with Voluntis that has created a digital prescription-based app that leverages nudges to improve patient outcomes and CVS Health’s foray into driving patient adherence with subtle and proactive digital taps.

Now these approaches are making headlines once again. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, distinguished professor, author and advisor Thomas H. Davenport opens by reframing the pressing need for driving behavior change. In the US alone, nonadherence is estimated to add a financial burden of around a quarter trillion dollars each year—from hospital readmissions to escalating medical needs. Davenport sees these challenges as largely “last mile” problems—those that don’t arise from failures in innovative new therapies like precision medicine, but rather emerge from the weaknesses of human behavior and motivation. He purports that better behavioral nudges could be used to combat many of the healthcare woes plaguing our world by driving positive change in patients’ lives to increase adherence and ultimately impact their outcomes. 

Davenport sees promise in an approach he calls precision engagement, which "combines data science and behavioral science to customize the behavioral intervention most likely to motivate a patient to change a behavior and stay engaged in a treatment protocol.” He specifically points to two current studies that could validate his suggested approach and could point to great promise for people living with diabetes. The first comes out of the aforementioned Penn Medicine nudge unit and aims to build a better understanding of how different people respond to various types of nudges, including competitive, collaborative and supportive interventions. The second hails from Mexico and specifically looks to galvanize the short-term successes that so-called “Sugar Clinics” have been demonstrating in the lives of tens of thousands of diabetics in recent years. Both studies are still in progress, but here’s to hoping behavioral science is the key to cracking the code on compliance.

Why This Matters—

Our own team dove headfirst into the science of behavioral nudges over the past year—expounding on the concept in a section of our 2019 Syneos Health Trend Ten we called Demand for Decision-Driving Insights—The Push for Understanding:

In 2019, the expectation for a data-driven understanding of who, where and when to connect will remain strong. But the big driver of change will be how. 

Look for a new focus on how behavioral science can unlock real change. Both clinical and commercial teams will invest in activating the ability to fuel motivation by understanding the psychological and social barriers that block behavior change. They’ll amplify the strength of their communications strategies by embedding evidenced-based nudges and tactics designed to influence choices and behaviors.

Although the science of behavior isn’t new, it’s gained new attention in recent years as a way to help people act on the healthcare decisions they make for themselves and sustain the resilience to try and try again. In 2019, healthcare organizations will recognize that they can’t just turn interest on and trust that it will stay on. The new job will be to constantly refill the bucket of motivation, creating the context and consistent support that will turn that interest to commitment; commitment to action; action to resilience.

Look for behavioral science to evolve and upgrade even small aspects of patient and physician engagement. Teams that understand motivational style will more effectively segment their contacts and make small changes in messaging to enhance motivation through simple behavior triggers.

To learn more about this and hundreds of other right-now-relevant topics, download our 2019 Health Trend Ten.

About the Author:

Drew Beck has spent his entire career in healthcare — from direct patient care as an EMT in college to countless roles in pharma sales and global marketing for leading life science companies including Eli Lilly & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline. He is currently a leader on the Syneos Health Insights & Innovation team, a group charged with leveraging deep expertise in virtual collaboration, behavioral science, trends-based-innovation, custom research and global marketing insights.