The mentalists: Behavioral psychology has delivered votes — now what about health?

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Obama's most significant health care-related accomplishment this year may well have been his campaign's demonstration of the effective use of analytics and behavioral insight - strategies that also offer exceptional promise for the delivery of care and the maintenance of health.

For starters, of course, there's the widely-reported "big data" success of the Obama campaign.  In unprecedented fashioned, they collected, mined, analyzed, and actioned information, microtargeting voters in a remarkably individualized fashion.   

Imagine if health care interventions could be personalized as effectively (or pursued as passionately).

Another example: According to the NYT, the Obama campaign hired a "dream team" of behavioral psychologists to burnish their message and bring out the vote, using a range of techniques the field has developed over the years.

According to the article, the behavioral experts "said they knew of no such informal advisory committee on the Republican side."

This idea of focusing intensively on behavior change is without question an idea whose time has come.

Earlier this year, for instance, a colleague (with similar training in medicine, molecular biology, and business) and I were surveying the biopharma landscape, and were struck by the extent to which classic biology hasn't (yet) delivered the cures for which we had hoped; physiology turns out to be extremely complicated, and people, and communities, even more so.

We were also struck by the remarkably low adherence rates for many drugs, abysmal whether you look at this from the perspective of clinical care or commercial opportunity (imagine if Toyota lost half their cars on the way to the dealership).

We joked that biopharmas might not be worse off (at least in the near term) if they got rid of all their current basic scientists, and instead hired a bunch of behaviorists, to figure out how to enable patients to best utilize existing products.  (As Lisa Suennen has recently written, it appears many medical device companies already are focused on just this sort of innovation. I appreciate the rationale but hope we continue to strive to develop entirely novel products as well.)

While it's far too early and much too facile to attribute the success of the Obama campaign to the involvement of the behavioral psychologists, it's hard not to applaud the thinking, and appreciate the implications for health care.

Currently, there's a tremendous focus on translational medicine, generally understood as the need to ensure molecular advances in the laboratory are turned into better care at the bedside.  Clearly, this remains vitally important.

At the same time - as Sarah Cairns-Smith and I argued in 2009 -  it's equally important to focus on what we termed "the behavior gap," and ensure we also pay attention to translating the advances from behavioral psychology into practice.

The good news here is that digital health is growing up, and may provide many of the enabling technologies required for both actionable analytics (companies such as GNS Healthcare and Predilytics, among many others, come to mind) and behavior modification (Ginger.io, Omada Health, many others).

Astute use of data analytics and behavioral science demonstrably improved the health of the Democratic Party; the question now is whether this integrated approach can evolve do so something arguably even more important: improve the health of the American people.

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