Finding The Right Message To Encourage Physical Distancing: What Patient Values Tell Us

BY Anna Keenan, Vijay Wadhawan

March 2020 ushered in a time of unprecedented uncertainty as 37 million Canadians sheltered in place to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. As Spring arrives in Canada, there is reason to be hopeful, with news that physical distancing has “flattened the curve” of COVID-19 spread. Plans to reopen our economy are underway.

With fears of a second wave of infection top-of-mind, understanding how to encourage Canadians to continue physical distancing – even as life starts to return to “normal” – is increasingly relevant.

Our recent analysis of the motivations and barriers to practising physical distancing revealed that laggard groups share common social values. Environics’ proprietary PatientConnect™ segmentation allows for a parallel exploration of the mindsets of Canadians from a healthcare perspective, specifically. This values-based segmentation clusters Canadian patients into five unique segments – each with a shared approach to their own health and attitudes toward healthcare practitioners.

Among the patient groups most likely to adopt behaviours recommended by medical leaders in the months ahead are Doctors’ Disciples and Responsible Proactives. These patients are trusting of medical practitioners and likely to be highly compliant with “doctor’s orders”. They represent a combined 48% of Canadian patients and respond well to prescribed regimens. Canadians who fall into these segments are often older, with 61% over the age of 49 and are best reached through reputable and traditional media sources.


Some Younger Patient Groups May Require A Different Messaging Approach

Younger patient groups, on the other hand, are less likely to align with a shared sense of conformity than other groups, and are more likely to be healthcare skeptics. These individuals are more likely to fall into the Anxious Avoiders, Health-Seeking Intuitives or Impulsive Fatalistsegments. Together, these three groups make up 52% of Canadian patients, and are the least trusting of conventional medical approaches. These Canadians are more likely to seek out and put their trust in health information found online. As a result of this tendency, they may be more susceptible to acting on misinformation.

Getting through to these less compliant segments requires a different approach. Messaging aimed at these groups should avoid a paternal, commanding tone and instead focus on simply presenting the facts – these groups respond well to evidence-based approaches. With less alignment to conformity, appeals to collective safety and moral obligation may not resonate particularly well; instead, a focus on the power of individual choice and its ripple effects is recommended. These patient groups are also likely to be more receptive to wholistic approaches, so messaging that references physical, mental and spiritual well-being are likely to be well-received.

Getting through to these less compliant segments requires a different approach.

Another important note when communicating healthcare messages to Canadians is avoiding the use of newer terms that lack a universal definition. Advising Canadians to “social distance”, for example, is a dangerous approach, as some patients will interpret this in different ways. Impulsive Fatalists in particular, who represent 17% of Canadian patients, rely heavily on their own gut instinct when interpreting advice, even when it goes against prescriptive instructions. This groups often reports not finishing a course of antibiotics because they have started to feel better, despite their doctor’s instructions. If an individual from this segment instinctively believes that “social distancing” is simply avoiding close contact with friends, they will likely take that as its meaning without any further research. To reduce the potential for misinterpretation, communications should instead rely on clear, familiar language and contextual examples to ensure recommendations are being accurately followed.

As we forge ahead into a new world, we need to remember the importance of using a targeted approach to communications strategies. Messaging that connects with the values of Canadians and speaks to them directly will improve the efficacy of physical distancing efforts and behavioural outcomes – helping our society bridge the gap until a vaccine is available.

Get in touch with us to learn more about how our PatientConnect™ segmentation can provide your organization with a deeper understanding of the attitudes and behaviours that drive your patients’ decision-making process.

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