Hacking patient behaviour: Rory Sutherland


Could a taxi service app hold the key to the future of healthcare? Rory Sutherland thinks it could.

The vice-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather will speak at WIRED Health as part of the Hacking Behaviour session alongside Jen Hyatt of Big White Wall and Marc Koska, inventor of the K1 auto-disable syringe.

Is there anyone he’s particularly looking forward to meeting and/or hearing? “Koska,” says Sutherland. “He’s a genius.”

He’s also excited to meet neuroscientist John F Cryan and learn more about his research into gut bacteria and the gut-brain axis. Cryan’s idea that “if microbes are controlling the brain, then microbes are controlling everything” strikes a chord with Sutherland, who is fascinated by neuroendocrinology.

He is already acquainted with Nassim Taleb’s ideas about fasting. Taleb argues, says Sutherland, that dietary practices many “discarded as irrational” because they were seen as religious, may actually prevent any one kind of bacteria becoming too dominant. A combination of feasting and fasting could, Sutherland says, be capable of rebooting your stomach in the same way you reboot your Mac.

Sutherland will himself be speaking at WIRED Health on the subject he knows best: “Behavioural science and choice architecture, and the immense importance they can have. And the fact that they’re generally mistakenly overlooked.”

Contrary to the natural assumption — widespread, as he sees it, in politics — that to solve big problems you need to have big interventions, Sutherland argues the case for very small changes having very large effects.

The “big intervention” idea he says, means that, “in a weird way people aren’t so much motivated by solving the problem, they’re motivated by being seen to be concerned about the problem and being eager to solve it.” He argues that while sometimes it’s possible to out-spend a problem, often the real solution: “may be small and quite oblique, not an eye-catching initiative.”

In healthcare, for example, one small solution could lie in the way that antibiotics are prescribed and used. Sutherland posits that allowing GPs to issue deferred or delayed prescriptions may save valuable appointment time and reduce the number of people taking antibiotics unnecessarily.

Similarly, the use of colour in pill-taking may improve compliance with dosage instructions. He suggests that, “if you want people to finish antibiotics, don’t give them 26 white pills. Give them 20 white pills and six red ones and say, ‘when you’ve finished the white pills take the red ones’.”

Like his fellow WIRED Health speakers, Sutherland thinks change is coming for healthcare, and he sees advances in psychology and technology as key.

“My huge prediction is that there will be a healthy fusion of behavioural science, technology and economics — what I always look for as the sweet spot is the area where technology, psychology and economics all overlap to an extent.”

An example of that sweet spot in another industry is Uber. He sees the taxi service app as having tapped into the uncertainty principle inherent in ordering a taxi over the phone. When will it turn up? Will it turn up? By eliminating that uncertainty Uber is, says Sutherland, “a psych hack to an extent.”

He imagines a future in which the practice of medicine has been Uberised. Remote data monitoring and analysis, doctor’s appointments via Skype, experienced paramedics sharing the workload with GPs.

However, Sutherland is wary of what he terms data fetishism. “My only concern,” he says, “is that as you produce more and more data it does give you more access to more gold — but it also increases the ratio of dross to gold.”

WIRED Health 2015 takes place on April 24 at 30 Euston Square, home to the Royal College of General Practitioners. WIRED subscribers can get a 10 percent discount on tickets.

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6 April 2015 | 8:17 am – Source: wired.co.uk

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