Hi , I wanted to share this piece with you about prescribing habits. It's really hard to get physicians to change their prescribing habits but it's not impossible!


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As the title suggests, it's not a simple answer. Robert, who has a PhD in Experimental Psychology and one of our leading Associate Strategists, succinctly explains why this happens and how we can help you to plan for this eventuality. 



Is prescribing behaviour rational or emotional?

The answer is both… and neither.


Picture this: Your company has been developing a better and safer alternative to a widely prescribed medication and on the heels of a highly successful clinical trial, approval is just around the corner. Appealing to the evidence-based physician should be a breeze as the team is armed with a wealth of positive data, your brand positioning and messaging are exceptional, so the product should sell itself. However, after the first wave or results are in the reality sets in - physicians are just not prescribing it.


Your efforts are falling flat. What is going wrong?


To understand this issue, we need to carefully examine the factors that influence physicians’ prescribing behavior.


Rational vs Emotional Pathways to Impacting Behavior

There are two primary paths to impacting prescribing behavior: (1) the rational path and (2) the emotional path. The rational path involves using facts and figures to appeal to a physician’s logic and their drive to maximize treatment efficacy and safety.  The emotional path means building a positive and well-differentiated brand that enables physicians to connect with the product on a personal level.


New learnings from the field of behavioral science, however, have shown us that the rational vs. emotional model represents a false dichotomy. Emotional and rational influences are not mutually exclusive but rather they interact in predictable ways. More importantly, there are fundamental barriers to changing prescribing behavior that must be addressed before any combination of rational or emotional appeals will have an impact. These fundamental barriers are rooted in the need for cognitive ease. For many physicians, it’s not a matter of which treatment is measurably superior. Instead, it often comes down to which treatment requires the least amount of cognitive resources to implement. The question becomes why would any physician prioritize cognitive ease over quality of care?


The simple answer is that they’re human. No matter how brilliant physicians are, they have a limited pool of cognitive resources at their disposal and, unfortunately, this pool is already stretched impossibly thin.  When this happens, humans tend to rely on mental shortcuts and exercise one of the following in order to ease the burden of choice:

  • We rely on existing habits
  • We do what others are doing
  • We avoid doing anything at all

Consider a physician treating an ailment where there are multiple classes of drugs to consider. Within each class there may also be a number of specific medications whose composition and functions differ in such small increments that they are difficult to differentiate. To avoid being paralyzed by the sheer volume of available treatment options, physicians must use the mental shortcuts outlined above.


Research on prescribing behavior has shown that to work around their shortage of cognitive resources, physicians often rely on ready-to-wear treatments (Frank & Zeckhauser, 2007). This means that rather than carefully considering each treatment option for each unique patient, physicians will prescribe their known treatment, which they have learned, is good enough for the majority of patients.  From a behavioral science perspective, this practice is highly adaptive as it enables physicians to overcome indecision and improve efficiency.


While the ready-to-wear treatment strategy may carry benefits for both physicians and patients this need for cognitive ease, unfortunately, spells bad news for your new product.   To overcome this problem, you may feel compelled to lean in with supporting facts and figures, and while we understand the motivation to do this is strong, it is unlikely to impact prescribing behaviour.  The reality is that, for most physicians, facts and figures are not persuasive because of the high cognitive load they represent.


The good news is that behavioral science has provided us the tools to understand and crack the day-to-day constraints that drive physicians’ decision-making. By shifting from old models of decision-making (rational vs. emotional), to a new model that addresses the cognitive and behavioral barriers to prescribing behavior, it is possible to cultivate highly impactful sales tactics. Here are three key steps you can take to greatly enhance your effectiveness through the application of behavioral science:


Step 1: Educate

Arm your team with a critical understanding of human decision-making. Physicians, like all humans, utilize cognitive shortcuts called heuristics to make decisions as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Many physicians rely on the ready-to-wear heuristic.  Partnering with behavioral scientists to help your team to understand this and other common heuristics, will give them the tools they need to build and deploy more impactful sales initiatives.

Step 2: Co-Create

Your sales teams are a critical resource when it comes to understanding the types of communications that will resonate with physicians. Foster a collaborative approach that fuses behavioral science expertise with the wealth of experience and tacit knowledge of your sales team.  A collaborative approach will lead to increased confidence in the go-to-market strategy, thereby empowering the team to deliver the message with greater impact.


Step 3: Iterate

The landscape is constantly evolving, and you must evolve with it. At predetermined intervals, regroup with your sales teams to learn from their firsthand experiences. Use this opportunity to identify ways to further refine your tactics for maximum impact.


Ultimately, physicians shouldn’t be characterized as primarily emotional or rational beings, they should be viewed as humans with the same fundamental strengths and limitations as the rest of us. Using behavioral science to build sales strategies and tactics that are sensitive to these strengths and limitations is the only sure way to succeed.








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