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How Behavioral Science Can Improve Virtual Primary Care Adoption

Telehealth and virtual primary care have the potential to drastically improve the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans by bringing the benefits of timely primary care into their living rooms. While payers and providers across the United States have seen a surge in uptake of remote primary healthcare during the coronavirus pandemic, there is still a gap between where telehealth is today and where its potential lies.

Behavioral science is one of the ways that forward-thinking healthcare organizations are utilizing to address and close this gap. By using science to change habits and behaviors, TytoCare’s partners have seen massive increases in utilization and ROI associated with virtual primary care.

What is behavioral science and why is it important for VPC?

For the last two hundred years or so, commerce has relied on the concept of homo economicus – the idea that people always act in their own rational self-interest. While the idea makes for neat model-making in economics, in reality, things are not so simple. After all, who among us hasn’t started the week with the best of intentions to eat healthily and go to the gym, only to find themselves by the following weekend ordering pizza and settling in for a Netflix binge?

Behavioral science stems from the observation that people don’t always act in their own self-interest and aims to make it easier for them to do so. In other words, it helps them to bridge the intention-action gap.

It’s important to note that people must always ultimately have free choice in the decisions they make. Consequently, behavioral science isn’t about forcing people down a particular path, but rather deals with breaking down the irrational barriers stopping people from carrying out their good intentions.

This is different from simply giving people more information. In fact, the more information people receive, the more likely they are to become overloaded and confused, which leads them to put off making a decision entirely.

Rather, behavioral science looks to change the context in which people make their decision. This could be something as small as changing the layout of a form, or the color of some text to draw people’s attention, or as large as reworking whole systems to make them easier for people to use.


Telehealth and virtual primary care are facing low adoption rates

At the moment, the intention-action gap is wide when it comes to telehealth adoption. People understand that virtual healthcare could help them access healthcare when it matters without a difficult trip to a doctor’s surgery or hospital, but in the heat of the moment, their instinct is to fall back on the healthcare options they are familiar with.

In April 2020 telehealth utilization rates surged, with usage 78 times higher than just two months earlier. The cause was, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic which necessitated that healthcare, like so much else, was carried out remotely. Over the course of the year, uptake abated somewhat to stabilize at around 38 times the February benchmark, equivalent to 17 percent of all outpatient and office visits.

The pandemic has effectively changed the context in which remote healthcare takes place. Before, people were used to conducting their lives largely in person. Now, people have become more accustomed to carrying out activities remotely and even enjoy the convenience it brings.

Nonetheless, there is still a gap to bridge to drive telehealth utilization rates even higher.


How behavioral science can help

In order to design for behavior change, three elements need consideration: Behavior, barriers, and benefits. Our ebook How to optimize your telehealth usage looks at this process in more detail, but briefly:

Behavior: Which action needs to happen? In order to encourage people to take an action, you need to know precisely what it is you want them to do. This step is therefore specific. In telehealth, it might be framed something like: ‘People need to call our number as their first point of contact, rather than heading out to a physical surgery or ER’.

Barriers: What is stopping people from carrying out the action? To find out the answer to this question, map out every single step a person would need to take in order to carry out the behavior, then for each point ask yourself: what might be stopping them from doing it? If they need to make a phone call, for example, do they have a number to call at hand?

Benefits: What will encourage people to take the action? Finally, for each barrier identified, consider ways in which it might be overcome.

Once you have identified your behavior, barriers,  and potential benefits, the next phase is to design a trial to find out which benefits most readily help people to overcome the barriers and bridge the intention-action gap. Finally, don’t forget to iterate your trials to hone your solutions over time.


TytoCare: technology meets behavioral science for VPC plan adoption

At TytoCare, we’ve spent nearly a year researching how behavioral science can impact the implementation and utilization of virtual primary care plans. Our research has uncovered a variety of different methodologies, all of which we have tested and experimented with to create an approach we believe is a strong structure for member communications. While we’re still working to iterate and further optimize these techniques, we have already seen impressive results, with one Tier 1 US payer seeing utilization jump from 56% to 77% in three months with the implementation of behavioral science-based communications.

We have now compiled an ebook looking more closely at the principle of behavioral science, and how they can be applied to remote healthcare in order to increase telehealth utilization.

If you would like to see similar benefits to your program, we invite you to work with us on a behavioral science program that can transform your customers’ lives.