The Untapped Potential of Behavioral Science in Medical Affairs

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Historically, Medical Affairs teams have relied on reporting only empirical evidence such as efficacy and tolerability profiles to influence uptake of a new drug or therapy. Here, Ben Routley and Mark Pringle explore the scope for applying behavioral science techniques to improve the impact of client communications.

Simply proving the benefit of an intervention is not always sufficient for it to be adopted into clinical practice. Yet historically, pharma Medical Affairs teams have relied on reporting only empirical evidence such as efficacy and tolerability profiles to influence uptake of a new drug or therapy.

Here, Ben Routley and Mark Pringle explore the scope for applying behavioral science techniques (BST) to improve the impact of client communications.

In many industries, influencing customer behavior is an inherent and accepted part of marketing and sales, with behavioral science applied throughout the brand communication lifecycle. Convincing customers of the benefits of one brand or product generation over another isn’t merely a case of citing facts about the item’s efficacy; it is about understanding and overcoming customers’ inherent bias through engaging the rational and emotional sides of their brain.

”Confirmation bias“ — where people read into something what they expect to see or hear — or ”status quo bias“ (inertia) can play an important part in determining outcomes. Behavioral science can help to challenge these subliminal decision influencers.

Getting people to cement a decision and make a change requires lateral thinking — just as it has during the pandemic. In the UK, government bodies and public services have sought personal commitment from citizens to engage in considerate, risk-reducing behavior. Simply citing the science, however powerful, proved to be only moderately effective in securing public buy-in to safe practices such as staying at home, maintaining social distance, wearing masks and getting vaccinated. So, officials had to supplement the hard science with more emotive and ‘human’ messaging that talked about protecting loved ones, and everyone ‘doing their bit’ to accelerate the return to normality.

This high-profile application of ”behavioral science“ has proved thought-provoking right across the healthcare ecosystem, and the discipline’s potential is now subject to fresh investigation by certain sections of the pharma industry — particularly in Medical Affairs.

Maximizing the impact of drug launches

Over the past five years, Medical Affairs — which provides the bridge between the pharma industry and the wider medical community — has seen its role in the development and commercialization of products expand. This is especially the case as treatments become more complex and their paths to market become more complicated.

The shift to more advanced treatments such as gene or stem cell therapies means that there is now a lot more to communicate if we are to build understanding and realize their potential. And it is here that behavioral science techniques (BST) offer something powerful and different.

Behavioral science is not a black art; it is not magical, nor difficult to understand and apply. In its simplest form it offers a practical and pragmatic solution to modern medical communications challenges, particularly where the proposition is very different from its predecessors.

For many years, Medical Affairs in forward-thinking life science companies has been evolving towards something much more strategic than a once-simple drug launch process, with a greater emphasis on tailored messaging to different stakeholders and segments. However, messaging alone does not change behavior, particularly in more cautious prescribers or those treating more complex patients.

From selling to influencing

So where does BST come into this picture?

As treatments become more specialized and targeted, the ability to communicate their benefits in the most effective way possible is more critical than ever. Integrating behavioral science into medical communications is about going beyond targeted messaging to address the motivations and inherent biases that shape clinical decision-making.

Typically, scientific (rational) information around efficacy and safety have been communicated at length in a bid to convince physicians that rationally, product A is better than product B. However, we know that people don’t always interpret information rationally and therefore don’t make optimal decisions. Psychological, cognitive, emotional and cultural factors also all influence decision-making. In the context of prescribing, HCPs’ behavioral influencers may include positive experiences with existing treatment options, lack of clarity regarding how to best manage adverse events, and accepted expectations toward patient outcomes. So, communication around these issues can be key.

Moreover, the recent absence of face-to-face congresses, where data would be interpreted among peers, means that Medical Affairs teams need to go further to help translate the science by leveraging alternative means of communicating. For clinicians then, the opportunity for Medical Affairs teams may be to recreate peer networking opportunities on a smaller scale, delving into the science beneath the headline data and giving physicians a chance to think through a new therapy’s relevance to their own patients. Our experience has shown that combining simple data communication with practical support allows reflective and considered analysis, enabling audiences to make more informed decisions on the balance of risk and benefit. This approach not only provides a platform for authentic scientific exchange but also brings rich insights into further behavioral drivers and gaps in the evidence package.

As the pharma industry wakes up to the potential — and clear need — for a BST approach to medical communications, there is an opportunity for early movers to gain an advantage while the practice is still relatively under-utilized.

Up to now, the uptake of BST in life sciences has been relatively muted, linked to perceptions of the discipline being a soft science lacking evidence-based studies. That’s despite growing acceptance that applied behavioral science can bridge the gap between knowledge and implementation, i.e. between accepting that something is the case and doing something about it.

As more companies wake up to the potential of BST, harnessing its techniques and applying them to Medical Affairs, communications are beginning to make strong inroads into improving the effectiveness of strategy development, clinical education, medical engagement, and diagnosis and treatment decisions in life sciences. Failing to capitalize on this potential could represent not only a disservice to patients, but a huge loss of market opportunity, one that few pharma companies can afford to forgo.

Ben Routley​, MSc is Head of Commercial Services at Bioscript. Clinical psychologist and behavioral science specialist Mark Pringle is Chief Solutions Officer at NeoHealthHub.