How we helped doctors to diagnose COPD with greater precision

Case studies
2018 Oct 19
By Kristína Radová

Have you ever heard of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)? If your mind just went blank, don’t worry, most of us experience the same. Despite public unawareness, COPD is soon likely to become one of the top 3 leading causes of death in the world, according to WHO. Why, if so prevalent, this disease goes widely unrecognized? We teamed up with one of the global pharmaceutical companies in trying to unravel this mystery and fix the ramifications.

Our goal:

The objective was very clear. To come up with a communication strategy leading to an increase in the number of general practitioners (GPs), who refer their patients, with COPD symptoms, to a pulmonologist.

Our approach:

First, we needed to delve into the underlying issue. What was the reason that so few general practitioners referred their patients to another specialist? Could it be that they are not even familiar with COPD? Or is it because there is some animosity between the two group of doctors, GPs and pulmonologists?

Several focus groups were conducted with doctors which shed light on major causes. It had to do with the ability of physicians to see beyond the stereotype of what a typical patient suffering from COPD looked like. In most cases, they misdiagnosed COPD as bronchitis or asthma(which has similar symptoms), thus not providing right treatment. Right, so once we were street-smart, we need to become book-smart (not like we aren’t, usually). 

We reviewed current behavioral studies and research that looked into potential reasons for misdiagnosis. We learned that many physicians do not understand basic statistics, percentages and frequencies. Scared, yet? We were. But not enough to discourage us from intervening. 

The research also described ways to effectively communicate and address the nitty-gritty of diagnosis. If provided with the right information, GPs won’t have such a hard time coming up with right diagnosis. We knew it needed to be memorable, stick like a glue, and easy-to-apply.

Our Solution:

The strategy, we designed, focused on overcoming Availability bias. It is, in fact, one of the most prevalent biases out there (so yeah, you are probably doing it too).

To put it short and sweet, it’s a mental shortcut. When making a decision (evaluating a specific topic, concept), we rely on more immediate examples that come to mind, than on objective information. If you can quickly think of multiple examples of something happening, you will believe that it is more common. In our case, COPD just didn’t come to mind.

To overcome this, we needed to create a strong association the doctors would have regarding COPD, then it would come to mind more easily. 

There are two ways to achieve this. Through strong emotions or repeated exposure to the disease. To excite emotions, we decided to use stories of specific patients, who haven’t been diagnosed in time and it has had a severe impact on their life. 

To make sure repeated exposure occurred, we designed a series of newsletters and landing pages introducing storied of different patients, but sharing a single call-to-action "If you suspect COPD, refer the patient to a pneumologist." We knew that with doctors it’s not enough to convey a story, if it’s not supported by hard facts (this is even more curious, since we learned recently, few of them can make head or tails out of numbers). 

Also, we were smart about the amount of information we provided, so that the information overload would not occur. To achieve this, each message only conveyed three facts with simple wording (we got rid of percentage, which most of us don’t understand anyway, and replaced them with frequency).

On top of that, we also crafted our stories to revoke the stereotype GPs had of COPD patients. One of them is that the disease is more prevalent in men than women (not true). We made sure to include more women as our lead characters. At this point you probably think we are really smart, right? But we didn’t rest on our laurels.

Behavioral economics cautions us to remember it’s not enough to paint a picture, if there is no frame(work) (on how) to use it. Thus, to change someone’s behavior, making them understand a problem is not enough. It’s crucial to give the person some guidelines how to react. So we did that. Two easy rules of thumb which will help doctors uncover hidden COPD

The final solution consisted of four newsletters and four landing pages.We believe that even this little intervention makes a difference, in the grand scheme of things, which is making sure less patients suffer and die prematurely just because they are being treated for the wrong disease.

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