To stay relevant, pharma and healthcare companies need to move beyond the pill. Instead, the focus needs to shift to the broader patient journey. This includes changes in the way companies communicate with patients. One essential means of achieving this goal is the application of behavioral science to all aspects of drug development, marketing, and medical education.

All health decisions are, to some extent, determined by human behavior. Behavioral science, the study of animal and human behaviors, encompasses various disciplines. Among others, these include sociology, psychology, and social and cultural anthropology. By understanding the science of the mind and its processes, and incorporating those principles, more effective, result-orientated communications can be developed. In theory, by routinely incorporating behavioral science, pharma could drastically improve the health journey of their patients.

Behavioral Science in Drug Marketing

[bctt tweet=”Getting a patient to change their behavior related to the treatment of their disease can be frustrating, if not near-impossible. In this regard, behavioral science can be used to offer important insights to develop novel marketing approaches.” username=”pharmamktnet”]

Behavioral change interventions, including digital tools, are often ignored by the people who need them the most. This can be either due to physical or emotional barriers, such as travel difficulties or poor self-esteem, respectively. Currently, many pharma marketing programs unfortunately rely on an overly simplistic understanding of human behavior. In turn, this may result in an inadequate or unsuccessful campaign for encouraging the ideal health behaviors. By incorporating behavioral science into pharmaceutical marketing, the resulting techniques cannot only bring commercial advantages but also make a real difference in the patients’ lives.

In more detail, using behavioral science for planning a marketing strategy (“behavioral marketing”) can help in several aspects. It can:

  • Provide validated models for understanding human behavior.
  • Reveal how non-rational impulses influence decision-making.
  • Provide a conceptual basis for insights that may be the difference between an average vs. high-impact campaign.
  • Allow for a highly targeted approach and lead to an extremely high level of customer engagement.
  • Measure the impact of a marketing campaign, followed by offering potential improvements to the strategy.

Importance of ‘Purpose’ for Behavioral Marketing

It is crucial to understand what your brand’s purpose is relative to the desired shifts in health behavior. For example, it may be difficult for a brand that treats a specific condition to authentically state that its purpose is to eliminate that condition through lifestyle changes, as this would ultimately put the brand out of business. This is one reason why many pharma-sponsored behavioral change programs fail to truly connect with the consumers. The desired behavior change must align with the brand’s purpose. Often, a clearly articulated purpose with regard to consumer health is lacking. Hence, clarifying this purpose is critical.

It is crucial to understand what your brand’s purpose is relative to the desired shifts in health behavior.

Additionally, one or more models of behavioral change, applicable to the condition or disease state in question, should be identified and applied. The most common issues facing individuals participating in the program should be elucidated. Finally, the patients’ experiences with their condition should be considered in the context of their life, not their life within the context of their condition. This helps illustrate how both the condition itself and other elements of the person’s life have changed.

Behavioral Marketing in the Digital Age

While the concept of behavioral marketing has been around for a long time, the recent technological and digital advances have allowed the industry to connect with patients on a more individual level. While evidence-based data will always be essential, knowing how to extract and utilize the most important information is becoming increasingly important. In behavioral marketing, the key is to figure out who the target audience is, what the patients want, and in what way (how) they want it.

To this end, conducting a customer segmentation analysis is key. Once the potential patient populations are identified, these patients can be targeted to assess additional behavioral attributes or commonalities. Digitally, this can be done through cookie tracking or through building a customer relationship management (“CRM”) stream and analyzing data segments.

Behavioral science-based technology and apps can also be used to continuously monitor and track the effectiveness of a campaign; this is crucial for ensuring its success. In addition, by using digital tools, clear goal setting and positive reinforcement can be used to motivate the patients to change their health behaviors.

Behavioral Science in Medical Education

Behavioral science

Despite the enormous potential benefit to patient care, the application of behavioral science to medical education currently lags behind that in other healthcare areas. The low adoption rate is mainly due to the mixed understanding of, and lack of consistency in, the techniques employed. In addition, there is a perception that behavioral science is only relevant to certain roles and activities. Hence, while medical education is regarded as a key area for the application of behavioral science, medical affairs currently has limited involvement in its application.

To address this knowledge gap, medical affairs professionals must become more engaged in behavioral science approaches. By gaining a better understanding of how these approaches can be applied, in an ethical and compliant way, to medical education, a positive behavior change among healthcare professionals can be achieved. Thus, medical affairs teams have the opportunity to lead the ethical application of behavioral science to improve the effectiveness of medical communications and education.

Understanding Human Behavior Could Improve Drug Adherence

Non-adherence and non-compliance to drugs are well-established issues, with up to 75% of patients not taking their medications as directed. Further, many patients will stop treatment prematurely. The implications of non-adherence are far-reaching, costing healthcare systems worldwide billions of dollars annually. To date, no universal solution has been proposed. However, behavioral psychology, which focuses on people’s actions, emotions, and thoughts, is now being explored by some pharma companies as a potential solution.

Patients’ motivation to start and continue with a prescribed medication is influenced by how they judge their personal need for the medication vs. concerns about potential adverse effects (“necessity beliefs”). Behavioral psychology uses the three C’s of behavioral change: Channel, Content, and Context. First, the appropriate channel for supporting the patient is identified, whether a digital app, nurse, doctor, or other healthcare worker. Next, the content is designed based on the above necessity beliefs, tailored to the chosen channel. Finally, the context must be considered, as there are often cultural differences dictating the kind of message to deliver and the appropriate patients to deliver it to.

So Why has Pharma Been So Slow to Adopt Behavioral Science?

Surveys have revealed that the vast majority of healthcare workers consider behavioral science to be important to future healthcare. However, numerous issues remain to be solved before its use will become more widespread. Among many others, these include:

  • Identifying the best ways to gain and retain engagement of the target audience.
  • Understanding that observing patient behavior is not an exact science and that the results can be easily misinterpreted.
  • Privacy concerns.
  • Lack of relevant skills.
  • Cultural differences in the attitudes towards the credibility of hard vs. soft sciences (with behavioral science belonging to the latter).
  • A lack of internal buy-in.
  • How to best address the perception that behavioral science is used by marketers to “manipulate” customers and is therefore inappropriate in a clinical or scientific setting.

What Can Be Done to Facilitate the Adoption of Behavioral Science?

To support the adoption of behavioral science by pharma, the concepts and benefits must be expressed in a language that resonates with the intended audience. Further, it must be backed up by evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness in healthcare. Research has shown that when the right language is used in education programs, behavioral changes and more rapid adoption of evidence-based medical practice will ensue. This will be key to gaining internal buy-in. Expert partners with real-life experience of applying behavioral science principles are needed both to champion the approach and for supporting skills development within the industry.

Moreover, when applying behavioral science to practice, it is important that everything that may affect behavior is considered. If your findings are inconsistent with what was expected, you have to ask yourself why someone would behave a certain way in that particular situation. Similarly, it is also important not to make generalizations and project your expectations; remember that all people are unique. For this reason, careful planning, detailed protocols, and large sample sizes are important when designing a trial.

In terms of privacy concerns, especially in light of the recent implementation of the GDPR, the company or industry policies should always be followed. However, this may sometime present a challenge. To overcome this obstacle, working with, and gaining insights from, the appropriate experts is essential.

Leveraging Expert Advice Through Online Advisory Boards

Advisory boards comprising the relevant stakeholders are essential for leveraging expert insights. In the setting of behavioral science, advisory boards serve multiple purposes. They can help establish appropriate trial protocols for assessing patient/physician behavior and its effect on treatment. Moreover, they can be used to provide feedback on established protocols and marketing approaches. They can also help overcome barriers related to privacy concerns and medical education. The stakeholders may include payers, physicians, researchers, nurses, allied health professionals, or patient support groups. However, the advisors are often living in different regions or countries. Hence, getting them to meet in person can be both difficult and expensive.

One way to circumvent this is to conduct online advisory boards using digital platforms such as the Impetus InSite Platform. This allows the advisors to provide feedback when convenient, saving them the travel time and saving you money. Several digital advisory boards can be conducted over a specified period, each customized to build on the insights obtained in the previous. If needed, web-based or in-person meetings can be organized at critical points of the process. Using a digital system also helps minimize the administrative burden by automating project elements such as email reminders and collation of responses into transcript reports.

Key Takeaways

To develop meaningful communications, a better understanding regarding the complex systems that inform attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors is needed. While clinical evidence is critical, it is not sufficient to resonate with the target audience. To achieve this, marketing and education efforts must also take into account people’s values and preferences. With this insight, communications can be tailored to ensure that clinical evidence is translated into practice and that the patients will benefit.

Further, for the successful integration of behavioral science, it should be routinely used on a daily basis, across all activities, big or small. That is, it should not be considered as a separate specialist discipline per se. At the end of the day, it is an essential foundation for all communication regarding health decisions.

The theories and application of behavioral science can seem complicated and daunting at first. However, with a little help from the appropriate experts, it is possible for pharma to cut through this complexity and successfully incorporate the fundamental principles into their practice.



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Poole, R., Gulbicki, S. (2017). From ‘hit-and-miss’ to smart communications: harnessing the power of behavioural science. Retrieved from!/from-hit-and-miss-to-smart-communications

Robinson, R. (2012). Hitting the Target with Behavioral Marketing. Retrieved from


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