29 Mar 2010

Opening People's Minds is one thing, changing them is quite another

My colleague Elizabeth wrote a few days ago about the Obama campaigning strategies and how the latest healthcare legislation has required careful communications initiatives to succeed.

Hats off to Mr Obama and his team but what happens after the campaigning? The kind of comprehensive change that Obama has brought with this new legislation means behavioural change for millions of Americans.

And changing people's behaviour is just not easy.

In the book 'Super Freakonomics,' the authors, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt write about a particular behavioural change that has been shockingly difficult to put into practice.

Get this. Around the world, hospitals are having trouble getting doctors to wash their hands.
Now, doctors are smart people and know the risks. Poor hand hygiene can have potentially lethal consequences in a hospital but the problem persists.

The world-renowned Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles decided to tackle the problem. They had estimated that the level of compliance at their hospital was 65%. After information campaigns didn't bring about the desired effect, they introduced a 'carrot' to change behaviour. A ten-dollar Starbucks voucher was given to every doctor seen washing his or her hands. The figures went up to 80%. But that still means that doctors weren’t washing their hands one time in every five.

In the end, the hospitals Chief of Staff Advisory Committee met to discuss this apparently insolvable problem. At the end of the lunch the doctors were asked to put their hands into a plate of agar to test the level of bacteria in their own hands. It seems the most senior people in the hospital had pretty filthy palms themselves.

Instead of hiding this potential scandal, the hospital made a screensaver of the bacteria laden hands and posted them on every computer in the hospital. And hand hygiene rates improved dramatically. In fact, the Cedars Sinai Medical Center now records an almost 100% record. Information campaigns, coffee vouchers, more dispensers and more sinks had some effect but it was the photo of a disgusting pair of hands occurring on screensavers all over the hospital that caused the eventual behavioural change.

What does it all tell us?

You’ve got to connect with your audience on an emotional level if you want to bring about change. You’ve got to remind them again and again and again.

An image can really be worth a thousand words and on this occasion, several lives.


Jeanette Fors said...

Thanks for an interesting post!

I believe that communication, if used effectively, is the most important element in any change process. Our subjective interpretations are always the basis for our future actions, and therefore we have to affect individuals' attitudes, perceptions and interpretations of what is going on. And most importantly, we have make people understand WHY they should change their behaviour. Otherwhise the change in behaviour will be something short-lasting.

Jeanette Fors said...

I see was you mean. But I don't think that it proved that "why" was not enough. A rational "why" was not enough - it required an emotional "why".

The last attempt that really worked was also a way of showing WHY. But it was a different way of showing it because it got into people's emotions. And that's basically what I meant by affecting individuals' perceptions and interpretations. You have to go deeper than merely "talking".