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Your words are potent medicine


A principle of medical ethics is beneficence:

A moral obligation to act for the benefit of others. Not all acts of beneficence are obligatory, but a principle of beneficence asserts an obligation to help others further their interests. Obligations to confer benefits, to prevent and remove harms, and to weigh and balance the possible goods against the costs and possible harms of an action are central to bioethics. Med Dictionary

In saying that the business of medicine is not so different from many other forms of commerce where someone might offer a solution to what appears to be a problem. What we have learned from studying human interactions is that what is said, how and when it is said has a crucial impact on what the person with the problem decides to do. In medical research the hopes of improving outcomes sometimes seem to focus on labs manned by people in white coats funded by a research grant. What is often overlooked is that it may be possible to change outcomes in healthcare (for better or for worse) by working on the dialogue in the consulting room. What in previous posts I have dubbed the ‘script’ in the ritual that is the consultation.

Beneficence dictates that we act to present the autonomous individual with options in a way that leads them to act in their best interests. That may include having the operation, taking the pills, accepting the referral or the test. But also steering away from  those options if they are not in their best interests. The art of communication received a boost in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. Cialdini catalogues the research on the subtle ways in which we are triggered to make choices from the options on offer. It is hard to summarise this extraordinary book but there are at least four essential lessons:

  1. There are ‘Privileged Moments’.  ‘Influence practitioners’ should target such moments before the interaction to greatly increase their effectiveness. It is possible to speculate what these might be for patients: pregnancy, diagnosis of a significant illness, receipt of worrying test results, significant birthday etc.
  2. During verbal exchanges leading questions try to get you to respond with certain answers and influence your later decisions. For example: “Given the recent cases of death from influenza, how dangerous do you perceive the threat of flu to be?” The way the question is posed is loaded with pre-suasion. By reminding you of these deaths the questioner draws attention to the recency of the topic, and thus the patient will evaluate the danger as high and be primed to accept the offer of vaccination.
  3. Whatever grabs our attention, we think is relevant. As Cialdini says:

All mental activity is composed of patterns of associations; and influence attempts , including pre-suasive ones , will be successful only to the extent that the associations they trigger are favourable to change.

In other words in any situation, people are dramatically more likely to pay attention to and be influenced by stimuli that fit the goal they have for that situation. In medicine being presented with information that suggests that someone might be ‘at risk’ of an illness might lead them to act to reduce the risk. However also in this context the heightened anxiety due to fear messages against for example smoking causes people to be delusional in order to dampen the anxiety effect. We also know that the public has a very poor understanding of numbers. In a study of laypersons published in Health Expectations it was concluded that:

Most participants thought of risk not as a neutral statistical concept, but as signifying danger and emotional threat, and viewed cancer risk in terms of concrete risk factors rather than mathematical probabilities. Participants had difficulty acknowledging uncertainty implicit to the concept of risk, and judging the numerical significance of individualized risk estimates. Han et al

Cialdini offers another insight:

The communicator who can fasten an audience’s focus onto the favourable elements of an argument raises the chance that the argument will go unchallenged by opposing points of view, which get locked out of the attentional environment as a consequence.

It isn’t just the facts but how the facts are presented. There are ways in which to engage if not by pass the logic. The three ‘commanders’ of attention that are highly effective are: the sexual, the threatening and the different. When an issue is presented in the context of these considerations their impact is boosted significantly.

    4. Our word choices matter a lot more than we think, because words get us to do things. The main function of language is not merely to  express or describe, but to influence. Something it does by channeling recipients to sectors of reality preloaded with a set of mental association favorable to the communicators view. Doctors may want to illuminate connections to negative associations and increase connections to positive associations. People also prefer things, people, products, and companies that have an association with themselves. This again emphasizes the vital importance of knowing what matters to the person whom you may wish to influence.

Finally and in medicine very significantly Cialdini draws our attention to the following:

Those that use the pre-suasive approach must decide what to present immediately before their message. But they must also have to make an even earlier decision: whether, on ethical grounds, to employ such an approach.

Every day patients consult doctors. Words are use. These words are designed to influence choices. In medicine the options presented may not take into account factors that the patient may not have disclosed and therefore the choice on offer may not be in their best interests. Nor do those choices take account of the practitioner’s own limitations in evaluating the choices offered. Therefore the first and most important aspect of communicating persuasively is to listen. As Cialdini suggests first determine identifiable points in time when an individual is particularly receptive to a communicator’s message.

Picture by Andreas Bloch

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