Better questions lead to better outcomes

By Andi Weiss, director of behavioral services for MicroMass Communications, an Ashfield Health Company

More than 15 years ago, I volunteered at a women’s health clinic in Washington, DC. The focus was on treating teenagers with sexually transmitted diseases. For many, seeking out and accessing a women’s clinic to diagnose and treat sexually transmitted diseases was difficult. The teens didn’t know where to go and whom to trust. 

As a volunteer, I was tasked with increasing awareness of the clinic and reaching as many teens as possible. I spent time thinking about the most important information to encourage teenagers to visit the clinic. I created flyers that included key information (location, hours), highlighted the conditions treated at the clinic, and emphasized the fact that there was no cost. Thankfully, the clinic was accessible via public transportation and was open after school, making it easy for teens to access services. 

At the time, it seemed like we had the right plan. Many flyers were distributed and more importantly, many teens visited the clinic. We believed we were making a difference.

As it turns out, it wasn’t as successful as it could have been.

Same goal, different path forward

If I could do it over again, I’d take a different approach. Sure, the end goal would be the same – increasing use of the clinic and helping as many teens as possible. But today, instead of guessing what teens would want to know about the clinic and the best way to reach them, we could get to know the target audience – the teens themselves – before getting started. With a better understanding, flyers could address topics that were important to these teenagers. We also could have considered specific messaging and other strategies (in addition to flyers) to help reach more teenagers with sexually transmitted diseases. A different approach may have led to increased success. 

Andi Weiss

So, what steps would I take today? For starters, I’d conduct my own research, asking some key questions, like:

• What are the teens’ thoughts and beliefs about sexually transmitted disease? What emotions are they experiencing?

• How do they feel about going to a women’s health clinic for care?

• What actions are they already taking related to their health? What was their experience?

• What strategies have worked before to impact the health behaviors of teenage women? 

I find myself asking such probing questions all the time. Lately, it’s been about the COVID-19 pandemic and how behavioral science can be used to impact current health behaviors even more effectively. 

We know the benefits of wearing a mask and social distancing, which leads me to another important question: 

Why do some take precautions and others do not? 

The impact of behavioral science

The approach to answering this question is similar to understanding the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the teenage women – answering key research questions about what might be driving these different behaviors. 

I’d be interested in understanding the perceptions of people not following and following precautions, and I would ask questions like: 

• What do they understand about COVID-19 and its spread? 

• What is the perception of wearing a mask? What is their understanding of how it’s designed to work? 

• How do they feel about social distancing?

• What health guidelines are they following, if any? Do they feel the guidelines are from trusted sources? 

• What personal experiences have they had with COVID-19? Do they know someone who tested positive? What was the result? Do they feel differently about the virus today than they did a month/six months/a year ago?

• What challenges have they experienced as a result of the pandemic and how have they dealt with them?

• What do they know about the vaccine? How is this impacting their approach to following health guidelines?

Today, I would use behavioral science to inform a plan to reach teens with sexually transmitted disease. This evidence-based approach can also serve as a guide to develop interventions to increase adherence to COVID-19 public health recommendations. Taking the time to answer key questions and review published literature not only increases confidence that the most relevant insights are understood, but also leads to a sound strategy. Simply put, behavioral science provides the roadmap needed to positively impact behavior. 

To achieve optimal outcomes, you need to start by asking the right questions.