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How to Save Lives, and not Alienate People

Words by Isabel O’Brien

Adoption and adherence inertia are barriers to the pharmaceutical industry’s objectives, but could behavioural science be set to create a path towards an improved future?

When Apple released an iPhone without the traditional headphone jack, networks bought in and defunct audio equipment was dropped: people jumped aboard the new era of wireless.

Generating interest in a new medicine is not so straightforward; when launching a new drug, procurement and patient adherence can be challenging, but behavioural science could be set to guide the pharmaceutical industry around the obstacle of inertia and towards better outcomes.

“We don’t make decisions in a vacuum,” comments Andrew Wood, Head of Behavioural Science in Healthcare and Policy Research, Cello Health Insight. “So behavioural science is important in understanding what’s occurring non-consciously and how the wider environment is acting on decision-making.”

Our subconscious is a tape recorder that starts at birth and runs to the present moment: an ever-rolling strip of brown tape ingesting our unique life experience. Whilst it records every detail, no playback technology exists. These events inform 95% of brain power despite the fact our conscious mind is unable to read them.

When it comes to adoption, behavioural scientists believe that HCPs are largely influenced by their experience with risk: how often are they required to take risks, how do those around them perceive risk, what have been the outcomes of risks taken before? Whilst this psychological data is impossible to access, pharma marketers can tailor their campaigns to mitigate fear of risk in general.

“Emphasising familiarity like a ‘trusted Mechanism of Action (MOA) in a new oral formulation’; or using social proof like ‘7 out of 10 patients who used the drug in Japan were effectively cured’,” is one way Katy Irving, Global Head of Behavioural Science, Healthcare Research Worldwide, suggests this inertia can be tackled.

“Increasing the risk inherent in current practice like ‘more patients are progressing than you might realise’, adding contextual cues like product comparison posters, or appealing to egos by saying ‘your peers using this product are getting better results’,” can also be effective, says Irving, highlighting that HCPs must be treated as human beings, rather than computers that base decisions on supplied data.

“As an industry, too much marketing can still overly rely on providing information,” summarises Wood. “But years of evidence from behavioural science tells us that it’s not enough to change behaviour.”

But what about once that drug has been developed? The desired endpoint of drug development is often not reached due to the lack of support for patients undergoing treatment. How can pharma help patients adhere to medication and enjoy the results attained in clinical trials?

“Behavioural science reveals that a scarcity of motivation, cognitive resources, and social support puts ‘natural’ limits on a person’s ability to consistently make short-term sacrifices for their long-term health,” says Dr Kathleen Starr, Managing Director, Behavioural Science & Insights, Syneos Health.

These limitations could range from depression to living alone, therefore behavioural scientists recommend implementing universal ‘nudges’, which can help patients with differing issues reach the same destination.

“Colour coding pills, bottles, and courses, creating automated trackers that trigger reminders if forgotten, and designing interventions that facilitate reward or feedback loops, all help reinforce behaviour and create habits,” says Irving, indicating that packaging or creating digital solutions can have profound effects on patient adherence to medicines.

While pharma is yet to fully embrace behavioural science, it need only observe other sectors to see how seriously these insights are being taken. Just last month MI6 announced a 50% increase in behavioural scientists on its payroll. The time to re-strategise is now, better outcomes lie just around the corner, but first pharma must break free of the wires that keep them situated in the past

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