Understanding Patient Behavior: The First Step In Designing Better Outcomes

A chat with Philip Graves, Consumer Behavior Expert and Best-Selling Author

At Next IT, we truly believe that when person-centric care reaches all corners of the healthcare ecosystem, we’ll overcome some of the most daunting global health challenges we face. But to get there, the entire healthcare ecosystem needs to work together to create an engaging and seamless experience for the people that need our care.

This is my fifth post in a series of interviews with visionaries and pioneers in the health industry — those whose thinking is opening up possibilities for the future, and who are designing and building the future, today.

My last interview was with Dr. Sam Volchenboum, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Director for the Informatics Program at the University of Chicago, and here I have the opportunity to speak with Philip Graves, a consumer behavior expert and consultant, and author of best-selling book Consumer.ology, which draws on research from psychology and neuroscience to show why most market research can’t work and what companies should be doing instead.

Philip is another one of our featured speakers at the Next Edge: Health Experience Summit coming to Philadelphia this November 3rd and 4th, where he will share the truth about consumers and outcomes based on the reality of conscious efforts. We spoke about methods to motivate people beyond engagement to drive better outcomes, and best practices from other industries that can be applied to healthcare.

Tell us about one unexpected insight you’ve uncovered for motivating patients to change their behavior, based on your consumer psychology research?

I think some of the most psychologically revealing experiments and trials are those that simply make it easier for people to do the right thing. This might be as basic as creating a default option to do the right thing (such as attend a self-help group) rather than presenting it as a matter of ‘patient choice’.

The health industry has, in my view, a very confused sense over how much choice patients should be or want to be given. The lifestyle behaviours that contribute adversely to certain health conditions are not selected through conscious choice, and we are fighting with one and three-quarter arms tied behind our back if we think that conscious patient engagement should be a prerequisite for change.

Moreover, we are often blind to the defaults that already exist in healthcare because we don’t see them for what they are. For example, often the choice of drug that’s prescribed is a standard ‘best option’ rather than tailored to the patient’s specific requirements. While this may be a pragmatic approach, patients frequently leave unaware that there are alternatives that might work better for them and what criteria would mean reevaluation is necessary.

What are some of the best practices that have been successful for engaging consumers in other industries like finance and media, that could be utilized in healthcare?

Engagement shouldn’t be our goal — better health outcomes should be what we’re striving for.

There are so many examples of behavioral change in other industries that I could end up boring you, but to list a few:

  • Changing the default option with bank statements to move people to paperless alternatives.
  • Changing the focus on a savings account from the interest rate to a regular lottery where a few people can win significant amounts of money — reflecting the fact that the psychological reward of saving money is not the interest you receive (particularly in a low interest rate climate).
  • Encouraging people to have insulation put in their attics by offering an attic clearing service, rather than discounting the price — because the real barrier to taking action was the mountain of junk people had stored there that they didn’t want to face.
  • Adding a greeting to a website landing page to welcome customers back — something that has no cost but increases conversion.

How can we design better technologies to improve the patient experience based on the fundamentals of human nature?

The key to designing better technologies is not to expect patients or healthcare providers to anticipate what will work but to recognize that they don’t know!

Too often we use market research or lengthy consultation phases to explore what people think might work and presume that because they are dealing with a condition or with patients who have that condition they will have the solution. Instead, we should focus our research energy on really understanding what is driving existing behavior and, in particular, what is happening at the level of the unconscious mind.

There are certain traits that have been identified in our decision-making behavior that can help us define our technology interfaces and dramatically improve our chances of success: we need to focus on creating habits; we need to make it easy for people to do; we need to ensure that people get a positive feeling from the small steps that we encourage them to take and, perhaps most of all, we need to constantly test, measure and learn so that we can keep improving outcomes.

Technology needs to be developed first and foremost with data collection and flexibility of implementation in mind.

What’s the one problem in the health industry that you aren’t working on but would love someone to address?

I would love someone to get better patient quality of life measurements throughout drug trials.

There is too much focus on certain clinical measures because they are readily quantifiable and too many ways in which the true picture can be corrupted inadvertently or otherwise during the trial process. The (understandably) infrequent interactions between patients and healthcare providers is something technology could certainly help to address if the right interface is available to capture a wider range of measures on a daily basis.

With the increasing range of affordable connected health monitoring technology there is much more data that could be gathered. However, we need to ensure that we design technology that makes people want to use it, rather than presuming that they will because it’s in their best interests.

What technological advances designed to advance person-centric care are most exciting to you?

Smartphone-based technologies that enable us interact frequently with the patient, measure outcomes and conduct experiments covertly are tremendously exciting.

It’s truly serendipitous that we have, in the Western world, been seduced into being inextricably connected to (relatively) powerful computers. However, we need to recognize that there is an interest and attention war to be fought — we need to create healthcare solutions that are as intuitive as an iPhone, as psychologically rewarding as a game of Angry Birds and as addictive as social media.

If we start down the path that presumes people should want to take positive health action we’ll be doomed to failure — we must be prepared to focus on behavior change for better health outcomes first and ‘winning hearts and minds’ second.


About Philip Graves

Philip Graves is a consumer behavior expert who has been a pioneer in the alignment of commercial market research practice with the insights gained from behavioral psychology and behavioral economics.His understanding of the limitations of traditional market research techniques and the new solutions that will yield accurate data resulted in his 2010 book, Consumer.ology, being named one of Amazon’s top ten best business books of the year.

Philip’s consumer psychology expertise has led to him working in a diverse range of industries including financial services, health, FMCG, media and technology with companies including Innocent, Lloyds Banking Group, Boehringer Ingelheim, John Lewis, Webtrends, Oracle, Adobe and Barclays. In addition to his consultancy work, Philip is a regular contributor to the media, speaks at events around the world and is a columnist for The Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Want to help push forward the edge of person-centric care?


Join Philip Graves, Dr. Volchenboum, Dr. Gulati, Kate Eversole, Dr. Damania and other leaders at the Next Edge: Health Experience Summit this fall in Philadelphia to discuss real world solutions and learn ways to create engaging, inclusive and seamless experiences for the people that need care most.

Reserve your seat today at www.nextedgesummit.com. Join the conversation by following @NextEdgeSummit and using the hashtag #HXsummit.

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