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3 Ways to Use Nudge Theory in Healthcare Marketing

By Alyssa Carter, Director of Marketing at Wellsource

It’s human nature to rebel when being told what to do—in fact, it can lead to the exact opposite behavior, regardless of the benefit. But influencing a person to make a behavioral change or take a desired action can be effective when the person is “nudged” to make the decision for themselves.

People don’t always make thoughtful and rational decisions—especially during times of stress, crisis, or illness. Understanding nudge theory and how to implement it into your healthcare marketing helps overcome these inherent challenges.

What is Nudge Theory?

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein coined the phrase “nudge theory” in their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.’ In it, they explore how people make decisions—and how to gently encourage people to make choices that are best for them.

Telling or demanding a person take a specific action often backfires. Nudge theory is the process of influencing or “nudging” people toward a behavior change or decision through indirect encouragement. From offering apple slices first instead of fries in a kids’ meal, to having people opt out of a benefits program (instead requiring they opt-in), nudge theory gives us the freedom to choose the best option—or a different option that might be right for us at that time.

In healthcare marketing, nudges can encourage patients to take control of their health by staying up to date on routine medical care, increasing patient engagement, and improving patient outcomes.

There is no one-nudge-fits-all application to nudge theory. You might phrase answers with a positive tone or position a selection to be more prominent. When implementing nudge theory in your healthcare marketing, remember the three most important aspects of nudge theory:

1. Small changes = big results

If people feel an action is too much effort, they are less likely to participate. The point of nudging is to encourage behavior through small, simple changes. It can be seemingly insignificant, like replacing the break room “junk food stash” with a fresh fruit bowl or encouraging employees to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Those small changes together can have big results over time, and the fact that changes are small means behaviors are more likely to stick.

Even minor changes in the words you use to present a change can influence a choice. An "at-home consultation" might garner more interest than a "telehealth appointment."

2. Nudges are choices, not mandates

Nudges guide us through choices: would you like a reusable bag for free, or pay for a disposable one? Rather than forcing a behavior change, providing carefully crafted encouragement and options leads to a higher rate of positive outcomes.

There are many ways to do this, from changing the color of a button to providing the anticipated wait times for a less-preferred scheduling option.

3. Limit options

While preserving someone’s freedom to make their own choices is vital to a successful marketing plan, research has shown that too many options can be overwhelming. Information overload and decision paralysis can hinder your marketing plans and organizational goals. It’s essential to spend the time to understand the struggles patients and your community face—and guide their next steps with a small number of carefully predicted options.

For example, at the end of an HRA, you can offer three clear and helpful options, such as:

  • Ask a Nurse 
  • Make an Appointment 
  • More Info

These options consider the reasonable next steps someone would take after completing the assessment.

Using Tools to Support Your Nudge Success

Creating nudges is not a simple process. And influencing someone to change their behavior is not an easy task. Having practical tools in place can help support a successful nudge campaign. Implementing targeted, condition-specific health risk assessments (HRAs) can help create a data-driven, trackable marketing campaign that includes targeted nudges customized to patient needs. HRA programs are valuable in assisting healthcare marketers by providing measurable data while simplifying the process for the patient.

9 simple tactics for healthcare marketers using nudge theory

Want more? Download our recent tip sheet, "Nudge Theory: 9 Simple Tactics for Healthcare Marketers Guiding the Patient Journey" to explore more ways to increase your patient engagement and acquisition.

Tags: engagement, patient acquisition

"Nudges can encourage patients to take control of their health by staying up to date on routine medical care..."

Alyssa Carter, Director of Marketing Wellsource

Alyssa Carter, Director of Marketing