The global pharmaceutical industry is well-versed in the practice and language of behavior change.
Whether industry is encouraging physicians to change their prescribing behavior, reminding patients of the importance of medicine adherence, or highlighting the role of lifestyle in the prevention of disease, the vast majority of healthcare communications are focused on changing behaviors. But a central characteristic of human behavior is being overlooked.
As our recent research shows, pharma’s view of “change” as an endpoint is at odds with the way we behave. To effect sustainable change that improves lives, communications must track the fluid and responsive nature of human behavior. Behavior is not an outcome — it’s a currency.
So let’s open up the books on the currency of behavior. We all know that the lifestyle choices we make can have a major influence on our health. We also know that our behaviors can alleviate, prevent, or perpetuate chronic disease. It’s why understanding the science of behavior has become critical to the development of meaningful health interventions – and it’s why the healthcare industries are focused on using the science to secure behavioral change that improves health outcomes. But there’s an important nuance around “change” that’s commonly ignored. Change isn’t a destination, it’s a continuum.
Orthodoxy has led us to view behavioral change as an end-point. Job done. We presume that once an individual’s behavior has been reset it won’t relapse. But behavior isn’t an outcome, it’s a moment in time. And it can change again tomorrow.
Behavior is a currency. Like the money markets, it fluctuates as environments and social contexts shift. As humans, we trade in the credits and debits of good and bad behavior. We break diets, we resume smoking, we forget our medicine. And we pay the price. If we’re lucky, we get to refocus, reinvest, and get back into credit. The theory? If we maintain a surplus of good behavior, we’ve a better chance of staying healthy.
But in this complex concept of behavioral wealth, staying in credit is an ongoing process. It requires an agility that must be reflected in our communications. Effective health interventions aren’t just built on deep behavioral insights, they’re cognizant of the currency-like fluctuation of human behavior and the multiple factors that influence it. To deliver communications that can influence life-enhancing behaviors, strategy needs to be adaptive. Because if we don’t anticipate change and continually respond to it, we’ll never inspire the sustainable behaviors that yield the greatest gains.
As communicators, it’s our responsibility to understand the drivers of decision making that serve as barriers or enablers of healthy behavior and to build communications that are informed by them. It’s why at McCann Health, we embed intimate behavioral understanding into all our communications strategies. And it’s why we continually leverage the tools of behavioral and relational sciences to design interventions that deliver health and commercial outcomes.
It’s time to reimagine healthcare communications and recognize behavior as a currency. Because sometimes even small change has a high value.
John Cahill is global CEO of McCann Health.