Healthy living is a hard sell- time to redesign the shop


Doctors set difficult challenges:

  • Eat a lot less
  • Exercise a lot more
  • Stop smoking
  • Drink less
  • Take tablets twice a day
  • Reduce salt

This takes effort and the reason you need to do any of it is because your bad habits have consequences. What is worse is that you may not recognise that you have a problem. You might say to yourself:

It’s not THAT bad.

Everyone in my family /neighbourhood looks like this.

I drink less than my mates.

I like salt, it makes my food taste better.

I won’t remember to take the tablets every day

It’s not like retail- you see something, you like it, the assistant treats you like royalty in a very pleasant environment,  you take out your credit card- that’s it. And there’s also the pay nothing-till- February deal. To please the doctor your habits must change. These habits are reinforced by cued-up behaviour on happy-making dopaminergic pathways. Research has repeatedly reproduced these results:

A sample of Norwegian adults (N=1579) responded to a self-administered questionnaire about seafood consumption habits, past frequency of seafood consumption, and attitude towards and intention to eat seafood. Structural equation modelling revealed that past behaviour and habit, rather than attitudes, were found to explain differences in intention, indicating that forming intention does not necessarily have to be reasoned. The results also indicated that when a strong habit is present, the expression of an intention might be guided by the salience of past behaviour rather than by attitudes. Honkanen et al

You might not see that doctor any time soon. The triggers to the behaviours that you need to change act when you least want them. What’s worse is that some of these triggers may not be obvious to you. You might find yourself chomping on sweets while you watch television. You might crave biscuits with your hourly cup of tea. You might watch television or stop for cups of tea because you are bored or stressed. The problem may not be the sugary snack but the boredom or the way you perceive your current life situation. Recognising that and dealing with is the real challenge. The boredom may be related to the mind numbing job that pays the bills in these ‘hard times’.

Doctors cannot possibly achieve behaviour change simply by pointing out that we are fat or drink too much.

If we conceive of a significant value of  primary care as something that promotes health doctors need to be able to sell the benefits of healthy living so that the patient considers them a priority. Something they wish to do even though it may hurt. It means creating an experience that will impact on the patient’s deepest psychological self. Can we do it from the current base?

  • An office style centre with boring notices and last year’s magazines.
  • Short consultations (ultra short in areas of greatest need).
  • Ineffective communication in uninspiring surroundings.

What can doctors do to change this experience so that the patient is tempted to act? Can what they promote, not to say sell, be made more appealing? According to psychologist we ‘buy’ things because:

  • We think it will make us secure
  • We think it will make us happy
  • We are more susceptible to advertising than we believe
  • We are hoping to impress other people
  • We are jealous of people who own more
  • We are trying to compensate for our deficiencies
  • We are more selfish than we like to admit

Therefore how can health promotion be designed with such an audience in mind? We need to consider every aspect of the experience doctors now provide. It’s not like selling gym membership or  widescreen television. It is about persuading people to make a persistent effort, to forge new habits and to invest in all sort of ways for a future they can’t immediately experience. We know from retailing that:

The …emotional responses induced by the store environment can affect the time and money that consumers spend in the store. Donovan et al

People can be triggered to make instant decisions. But what about decisions that involve a real commitment to change? Small change perhaps but change nonetheless which may lead to smoking cessation. If we look to the future of health innovation then we might learn from experts who have already managed to change our response to the world we inhabit by working out the art and science of triggering.

Picture by Gerard Stolk

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