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A time of change, a time to change?

By Sally Bull and Stephen Small

Sally BullStephen Small

Moments of crisis have often been the catalyst for broader social change. The impact of new working practices in World War I, for example, was a turning point for the role of women in British society. The traditional, patriarchal views of the rights and capabilities of women shifted irrevocably and women were given the right to vote soon after the war.

From the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already asking what the long-term impact would be.This crisis has forced us to do many things differently, especially in healthcare. Working out which of these changes will ‘stick’ is hard to predict. But behavioural science can provide insight into which behaviours and practices may revert back to the status quo, and which could become the new normal.

Embracing digital connections

One major change has been the uptake of digital tools to stay connected. Technology has brought people together, with many people upskilling overnight to use digital technology on a daily basis. In healthcare, the adoption of telephone or video consultations between physicians and patients for routine appointments has proven to be both time- and cost-effective.

Physician- to-physician interactions have also transformed; during recent insights work, we spoke to specialists who are now using online platforms to conduct multidisciplinary team meetings. Rather than having to travel or submit a written report, specialists are finding virtual meetings a game changer – ensuring that their views are heard, and patients are discussed holistically, while staying safe and saving precious time and resources.

The key point is that all of this technology was already available, but just not fully adopted. The reluctance by some to use digital technology pre-COVID-19 was rooted in a reluctance to change from tried and tested ways that people had invested time and effort in, as well as the fear of losing something by changing to an untested, new approach. These were behavioural barriers (status quo bias, sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion), not technology barriers.

We are on a path to the wider adoption of digital tools and communication in medicine as a new social norm, not because of a revolutionary new technology, but because behavioural barriers have been broken down by the enforced use of existing technologies during the crisis. This could potentially lead to long-term, sustainable change in the use of digital technology in healthcare, but it is not inevitable. In the new normal, healthcare and pharma will need to support the transition, where that makes sense, to prevent reversion to pre-COVID-19 norms.

Keeping the human element

Embracing new digital behaviour involves loss as well as gain. We are social animals who thrive on face-to-face interaction. Not being able to see, hug and spend time with the people we care about during lockdown has been hard. So while digital interactions have their place, the importance of personal connection will not go away.

In the next stage of the pandemic, we need to rethink how virtual can become more personal, so we don’t feel like we’re losing those face-to-face interactions. For pharma, this means redefining the role of sales reps, and the nature of conference, workshop and meeting attendance, to develop a virtual- personal hybrid model for the new normal.

Looking to the future

Inevitably some behaviours will revert (just as many women after World War I had to give up their new working roles to allow men to return to their old jobs), but there can be permanent change. The digital tools that save time, improve access and aid efficient communication will stay, if we can combine them with new ways to experience the human connections we’ve been deprived of during this first wave of COVID-19.

The current crisis has opened up a new vision for what a hybrid digital/face-to-face healthcare system and practice could look like. As an industry, pharma needs to support this opportunity to create broader change by identifying and championing those initiatives that can have a positive impact on patient care in the future.

This will require a deeper understanding of our biases and the behavioural science techniques needed to embed behaviour change, as well as creating new technology.

There are many biases and heuristics that influence human behaviour. Here are four that we need to be aware of when trying to embed permanent behaviour change.

1. Loss aversion: the tendency to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains. How can we ensure that people appreciate the gains from the technology they have been forced to experience (more than what they have lost)?

2. Social norms: behavioural expectations or rules within a group of people which signal appropriate behaviour. How can
we make digital communication in healthcare become the norm and accepted practice, rather than a challenge to the expected roles of patients and doctors?

3. Status quo bias: preference for things to stay the same by doing nothing or keeping to a previously made decision. Has the forced adoption of technology really removed inertia around digital adoption? Will it last?

4. Sunk cost fallacy: the continuation of a behaviour as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort). Do people really want to give up the old systems that have been developed over time and required a lot of investment in favour of this new way of working? How can we support the switch?

Sally Bull is a Senior Consultant and Stephen Small is Head of Commercial Strategy, both from Consulting at McCann Health

In association with

McCann Health

22nd July 2020


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