Ben Routley and Mark Pringle take a look at how behavioural science techniques (BST) could be used to improve the impact of client communications

A medical intervention may be beneficial but that alone isn’t enough to ensure that it will be adopted by either patients or healthcare providers. Nevertheless, historically, pharma Medical Affairs teams have tended to rely on empirical evidence to influence the uptake of new drugs and treatments.

Behavioural science techniques (BST) have been a pivotal part of the guidance issued by the UK government and SAGE, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, since the arrival of COVID-19, in order to encourage safer behaviours among members of the public. That has brought the practice into sharper focus and it is already being embraced by more forward-thinking pharma organisations.

Applying behavioural science across brand communications is an accepted part of marketing and sales in many industries. Convincing customers of the benefits of one brand over another, or the latest version of a product over a previous generation isn’t just a case of citing statistics about the item’s effectiveness: you also need to engage people’s emotions, so that customers respond with both the rational and emotional parts of their brain.

‘Confirmation bias’ – where people read into something what they expect to see or hear – or ‘status quo bias’ (more commonly known as inertia) can play an important part in determining outcomes. Behavioural science can help to challenge these subliminal decision influencers.

Getting people to cement a decision and make a change requires lateral thinking – just as it has during the pandemic. In the UK, government bodies and public services have sought personal commitment from citizens to engage in considerate, risk-reducing behaviour. Simply citing the science, however powerful, proved to be only moderately effective in securing public buy-in to safe practices such as staying at home, maintaining social distance, wearing masks and getting vaccinated. So officials had to supplement the hard science with more emotive and ‘human’ messaging that talked about protecting loved ones, and everyone ‘doing their bit’ to accelerate the end of COVID and a return to normality.

This high-profile application of ‘behavioural science’ has proved thought-provoking right across the healthcare ecosystem, and the discipline’s potential is now subject to fresh investigation by certain sections of the pharma industry – particularly in Medical Affairs.‘Combining simple data communication with practical support allows reflective and considered analysis’

A powerful and different offering

Over the past five years, Medical Affairs – which provides the bridge between the pharma industry and the wider medical community – has seen its role in the development and commercialisation of products expand. This is especially the case as treatments become more complex and their paths to market become more complicated.

The shift to more advanced treatments such as gene or stem cell therapies means that there is now a lot more to communicate if we are to build understanding and realise their potential. And it is here that BST could offer something powerful and different.

Behavioural science is not one of the black arts; it is not magical, nor especially difficult to understand and apply. In its simplest form it offers a practical and pragmatic solution to modern medical communications challenges, particularly where the proposition is very different from its predecessors.

For many years, Medical Affairs in forward-thinking life science companies has been evolving towards something much more strategic than a once-simple drug launch process, with a greater emphasis on tailored messaging to different stakeholders and segments. However, messaging alone does not lead to a change in behaviour, particularly in more cautious prescribers or those treating more complex patients.Addressing motivation

So where does BST come into this picture? As treatments become more specialised and targeted, the ability to communicate their benefits in the most effective way possible is more critical than ever. Integrating behavioural science into medical communications is about going beyond targeted messaging to address the motivations and inherent biases that shape the clinical decision-making process.

Typically, scientific (rational) information around efficacy and safety has been communicated at length in a bid to convince physicians that rationally, product A is better than product B.

However, we know that people don’t always interpret information rationally and therefore don’t always make optimal decisions. Psychological, cognitive, emotional and cultural factors also all influence decision-making. In the context of prescribing, HCPs’ behavioural influencers may include: positive experiences with existing treatment options, a lack of clarity regarding how to best manage adverse events, and accepted expectations toward patient outcomes. So communication around these issues can be very important.

Moreover, the recent absence, due to the COVID pandemic, of face-to-face congresses, where data would be interpreted among peers, means that Medical Affairs teams need to go further to help translate the science by leveraging alternative means of communicating. For clinicians then, the opportunity for Medical Affairs teams may be to recreate peer networking opportunities on a smaller scale, delving into the science beneath the headline data and giving physicians a chance to think through a new therapy’s relevance to their own patients.

Our experience has shown that combining simple data communication with practical support allows reflective and considered analysis, enabling audiences to make better-informed decisions on the balance of risk and benefit. This approach not only provides a platform for authentic scientific exchange but also brings rich insights into further behavioural drivers and gaps in the evidence package.Getting ahead of the game

As the pharma industry wakes up to the potential – and clear need – for a BST approach to medical communications, there is an opportunity for early movers to gain an advantage while the practice is still relatively underutilised by others.

Up to now, the uptake of BST in life sciences has been relatively muted, linked to perceptions of the discipline being a soft science lacking evidence-based studies. That’s despite growing acceptance that applied behavioural science can bridge the gap between knowledge and implementation, i.e. between accepting that something is the case and doing something about it.

But as companies increasingly realise the potential of BST, applying BST techniques to Medical Affairs communications is starting to make strong inroads into improving the efficiency of the life sciences. Areas affected include strategy development, clinical education, medical engagement, and diagnosis and treatment decisions. Pharma companies that fail to capitalise on the potential afforded by BST could be missing out on a huge market opportunity.