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Creatures of habit: the long road to behavioural change

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Budget cycles versus strong foundations

 Medical education has traditionally been about setting strong foundations for your brand, either pre-launch or to initiate a new behavioural change associated with your product’s lifecycle. 

Strong foundations that lead to behavioural change should preferably start in phase II and be consistent and steady throughout the brand’s life. However, this is unrealistic as budget and resources would need to be committed up to five years at a time. 

Budget cycles run yearly, providing a short-term resource for results that are sometimes difficult to tally with long-term goals. 

So the challenge is how to balance the need for a robust and long-term educational approach with annual budgeting cycles – if only to reassure internal audiences that you are on the right track and to demonstrate a level of return on investment?

The slow burn

A well-established psychology principle, apparent in medical education, shows that long-term behavioural change is a slow burner.  It requires adjustments in beliefs, knowledge and understanding before it can ultimately impact on prescribing habits or adherence patterns. 

A long term commitment to medical education is therefore required.  However this doesn’t mean individual projects will necessarily take years to deliver results. Smart pharma companies are working with their agencies to produce programmes with short, medium and long-term outputs, building in interim opportunities to keep delivering educational messages. 

Although a long-term commitment is preferable, an exit strategy from medical education programmes is essential.  If the individuals driving the initiative move on or projects lose their funding and so cease, customers feel frustrated and let down, which only serves to damage industry credibility. This makes it particularly difficult if companies then want to re-enter the therapeutic area at a later date with new initiatives.

Playing by the rules

Understanding healthcare professionals’ mind-set can sometimes seem overly complex and we would do well to consider them firstly as adults with diverse opinions and preferences, rather than a different species altogether. 

American professor Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) developed principles of adult learning which along with a basic understanding of how to achieve long-term retention of information can help us understand and initiate behavioural change with our key audiences. 

The principles state that adults:  

  • need to know beforehand that what they will learn is appropriate to their own practice
  • have life experiences and knowledge which should be built upon to enable a connection between current skills and newly acquired information
  • prefer teachers who are facilitators rather than fact regurgitators
  • want to be actively involved in learning and work toward defined goals
  • will be less interested in knowledge for its own sake and need activities that demonstrate from the onset they will have a number of useful ‘take home’ elements 

A full summary can be found on the Quality Improvement Agency’s Guidance Notes on the Key Principles of Adult Learning

Delivery isn’t everything

Just like a TamagotchiTM once your pet is up and running, the game is not over. 

Whilst delivery is a good reason to celebrate, the journey of driving education continues. Continuous engagement, reinforcement and on-going commitment to your educational offspring is required to deliver behavioural change.

Agencies need to play their part

Agencies would also do well to remember the need for a long-term vision. All too often the end goal offered in a rousing pitch presentation is the delivery of a darn near-perfect medical education tool – ta-daa! 

However, not enough thought or time is given to exploring the ongoing impact and return on investment potential over the medium to long-term. 

How many agencies meet the brief but fail to see the opportunities to both parties of going beyond it, exploring multiple-channels or having a visionary approach to achieving success? 

How many explore the implications of maintenance and upkeep of the promise of behavioural change and then find creative ways to fund such activities or keep budgets within the realms of feasibility?

Success is all around 

We have all seen some great campaigns and programmes that have stood the test of time, continued to repeat their messages and had long-term commitment.  These should be our inspiration and our goal.

By Joanne Neave and Tracy Willmott of ROCK medical communications  

Joanne Neave is Managing Director and Tracy Willmott is Director of ROCK medical communications. For more insights and programmes to create strong foundations and behavioural change for your brand, contract Joanne or Tracy at or visit our company profile page here

Reference: Knowles MS. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New York: Cambridge Books; 1980


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