Behavior Change comes from the Human Touch

Atul Gawande is a wonderful writer who happens to be a doctor.  His last book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” was a best-seller that focused on the power of simple checklists to change behaviors.

Yet his latest article in the New Yorker, “How Do Good Ideas Spread?” focuses on the limits of the relatively simple checklist approach:

Gawande’s piece focuses on what makes changing medical practices so difficult.  He contrasts the rapid adoption of anesthesia with the incredible resistance of the medical establishment to Joseph Lister’s theory of antisepsis (essentially, that doctors should wash their hands).

“So what were the key differences? First, one combatted a visible and
immediate problem (pain); the other combatted an invisible problem
(germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the
operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one
made life better for doctors. Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal,
time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered
procedure. Listerism, by contrast, required the operator to work in a
shower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands.
You can imagine why Lister’s crusade might have been a tough sell.

has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack
problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them
work can be tedious, if not outright painful.”
He goes on to describe his efforts to improve medical care for childbirth in rural India.  At first, the challenge seems insurmountable.  The hospitals lack resources, and the doctors and nurses, while dedicated, are stretched beyond belief.  Numerous educational campaigns had failed.

“In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become
enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want
frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the
world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to
teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions.

But technology and
incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social
process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,”
wrote Everett Rogers. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people.
But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and
trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires
effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

What finally seems to work? Sustained 1:1 interaction.

“Why did you listen to her?” I asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”
All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.”
“She was nice?”
“She smiled a lot.”
“That was it?”
“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

Many startups use technology to change behavior. But sometimes, the best technology is simply sitting down with your user. It’s long and messy, but it works.

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