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How behavioural design is transforming the role and impact of life sciences in healthcare

Behavioural economics will become essential to the future success of life sciences companies

Aaron BeanNina WarderThe next revolution in healthcare will be driven by behavioural change.

The healthcare sector is undergoing a historic shift in the face of increasing pressures, which is, in large part, being driven by people’s behaviour. Non-adherence, for example, costs up to US$290m in the US alonei, and studies estimate that up to 40% of deaths from top chronic diseases are preventable through lifestyle changesII. Considering the size of this opportunity, the sector has been slow to invest, with behavioural change often being an afterthought for healthcare organisations.

Incentives to behave rationally are everywhere, from the way products are priced to how we are encouraged to behave at work, but the vast majority of these incentives assume that people are ‘rational agents’ who act in their own best interests. However, research has shown that when it comes to human behaviour, we often act instinctively and irrationally. The good news is that principles of behavioural economics can help us develop customer engagement strategies, services and solutions that overcome these impulses and irrationalities.

Figure 1

The time to design for better health outcomes is now

Behavioural economics is increasingly being used in wellness, with start-ups helping people to improve diet and exercise through setting goals, making financial pledges and selecting supporters to track their progress. This trend will amplify quickly, as three factors help accelerate the change:

1. Changing healthcare incentives: In order to bring costs under control, governments and insurance companies are moving  towards paying for health outcomes. This will force life sciences companies to support patients with behaviour change in order to improve health outcomes in a real-world setting.

2. The rise of digital technologies: Technologies that empower patients and leverage real-time information through apps, wearables, sensors and social media are on the rise. These seamlessly connect patients and doctors, enabling prevention and real-time disease management in a more cost-effective way.

3. The rise of design thinking: As business problems and the contexts people operate in have become more complex and multifaceted, design thinking has gained prominence for putting the user at the centre of the solution.

While organisations are experimenting, we are yet to see healthcare accelerate the adoption of behavioural economics. The first movers that manage to do so successfully are likely to see huge improvements in performance, while also addressing a number of society’s biggest challenges.

Making behavioural change stick in life sciences will require new capabilities

Through work with industry leaders across life sciences, retail and government, we have identified what we believe to be the five key factors in driving long-term change:

1. Understand current behaviours: Combine a range of research techniques to get to the heart of what influences patient and healthcare professionals.

2. Ground behavioural change in the science: Build interventions based on the latest studies in academia, business and patient research, and tailor these to your specific needs.

3. Own the experience: The healthcare sector is incredibly fragmented. Helping to join up the end-to-end experience presents a significant opportunity for organisations to grow their influence within the ecosystem.

4. Don’t lose sight of business value: Every intervention needs to be tied back to a measurable business impact, helping to allocate investment into scaling those that drive value.

5. Adopt an agile, continuous design cycle: Take a responsive approach, where the right interventions are built, tested and implemented at pace.

The way forward

The case for behavioural economics will become essential to the future success of life sciences companies. As policy-makers and payers continue to demand better value for money and outcomes, companies across the health ecosystem will increasingly find themselves in the business of delivering health outcomes. When they do, having the capability to understand customers at a deeper level and then putting in place the right strategies to nudge people to make healthier decisions will be just as important as having an innovative product.

EY’s Global Life Sciences Sector brings together a worldwide network of nearly 17,000 sector-focused professionals to anticipate trends, identify their implications and help our clients create competitive advantage. We can help you navigate your way forward and achieve sustainable success in the new health-outcomes-driven ecosystem. Visit ey.com/uk/lifesciences.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.

By Aaron Bean and Nina Warder, Life Sciences, EY UK & Ireland


[i] Rachel Louise Cutler et al., Economic impact of medication non-adherence by disease groups: a systematic review (BMJ Journals: Volume 8, Issue 1, 2017).

[II]  Up to 40% of annual deaths from each of five leading US causes are preventable, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (accessed via www.cdc.gov, 26 February 2018).

1st August 2018

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