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Communication in your waiting room – Five secrets from a behavioural expert

by in News

By Kara Dudley

When was the last time you just sat quietly for 30 minutes in your practice waiting room?

(Don’t worry, I’ll wait a moment while you mop up the tea and stop laughing…)

The four walls of your waiting room provide a treasure trove of opportunities to do the incredible – to drive down skipped appointments, to remind the elderly to protect themselves from flu, to reach out to victims of abuse.

And yet these spaces are so often ‘underwhelming’ – filled with dog-eared, ageing printouts that don’t do justice to the life-changing messages they convey.

It happens very easily so I’m not pointing fingers.

But what if I told you, your waiting room is the easiest way to discover how your patients behave, talk and act?

And what if I told you, it’s the quickest way to learn how to pitch the right tone, word those leaflets, write your patient newsletter or ease patients into using your new online consultation software?

If you enjoy people-watching, you’ve got this nailed.

What’s it got to do with a snowed-under practice manager like me?

The answer lies in a little something called neuromarketing – and it can teach us a lot about healthcare communication.

To put it in a nutshell, it comes down to understanding the basic roots of human emotions and remembering that we’re human too.

As humans, we subconsciously define what we want and the ways in which we want to receive it, without even realising it… even to the extent of deciding which communications activities will appeal to us.

As humans, we like to think that other people are like us too. You might think that last year’s flu jab poster will do the job, but are you looking at it through your eyes or the patients’ eyes?

That new patient registration form; do you understand what life is actually like for that person who is going to fill it out?

That patient sat fidgeting in the corner, looking around a lot and holding her handbag on her lap; she’s obviously preoccupied and anxious, so what are you going to say on your posters to catch her attention?

Being a nosy parker, who can manage a short visit to the waiting room on a regular basis, will give you greater insight into your patients than you could ever imagine.

So how should I approach waiting-room communication?

As humans, our brains are hard-wired in ways that influence the decisions we make, the information we process and the images we do or don’t process.

Understanding the average brain can help you make full use of all four of those waiting-room walls. And if behavioural experts did marketing, these are the tips they would probably give you:

Brain Tip 1: Target the Neanderthal brain

Humans still have a primitive brain – it’s called the amygdala. Perhaps better known as a ‘gut reaction’, this part of our brain creates an automated response within just three seconds.

Communicating with the amygdala will create a longer-lasting memory than messages made for the rational, conscious part of the brain.

Bottom line: Go for the gut and make it emotive – create vibrant messages that are scannable within a matter of seconds.

Brain Tip 2: A picture paints a thousand words – it’s not just a saying, as proven by science 

In fact, this saying has been proven to be a gross underestimation, as we actually process images 60,000 times faster than text. Put simply, we remember pictures far more easily than text alone.

Bottom line: Use engaging imagery with meaning (don’t simply opt for stock imagery which your patients have seen time and again). You should also consider ditching Microsoft Publisher and using a free design tool such as Canva to create clean, vivid designs including both images and text.

Brain Tip 3: Use faces!

Once again, we look to the Neanderthal brain for another tip. Despite society having moved on from times of spears and grunting over the latest woolly mammoth catch, our brains still rely on faces to perceive whether the animal in front of us is a threat or a friend.

Bottom line: Use authentic imagery of your doctors, staff and patients (with permission, of course). And make them smiley! But stay away from the cheesy American stock photos; when did you ever see your locum look that happy?!

Brain Tip 4: Tap into the power of colour theory

Colours create a rainbow of reactions in our brains. So powerful is colour that a study has shown that 62–90% of our emotions about a product or service can be influenced by colour alone. We don’t have to look far to see colour in action in the medical world.

Blue builds trust (think ‘NHS’ and the wider medical world); green conveys life, renewal, healing and calmness (e.g. the cross of a pharmacy); and orange communicates enthusiasm, determination and success (here’s looking to you, GlaxoSmithKline [GSK]).

Bottom line: Don’t pick colours for your marketing materials randomly – consider every element of your design, from borders to backgrounds and calls to action. You can create a one-page ‘style’ guide so everyone in your practice keeps to it.

Brain Tip 5: Make your patients feel as though they belong

As humans, we crave a feeling of belonging (you can thank those survival instincts for that). It’s why we imitate each other and look towards those around us for cues on how to behave.

Bottom line: Patients look to fellow patients for actions, opinions and thoughts. Social proof can therefore be a powerful tool for influencing the actions of others – such as quotes from patients giving their opinion of a particular service. Or, on the flip side, how not to behave – such as displaying how many doctor hours were wasted on ‘no-shows’ in the previous quarter.

Ready to show your waiting room a little more love and get to know those patients of yours better?
Get out among them as often as you can and listen to what’s going on around you.

They’ll tell you everything you need to know to keep them happy, supported and using your practice services properly.

By Kara Dudley (Yorkshire Medical Marketing)

Front-line friend to primary care. Champion of common sense and ‘reyt’ simple words. Kara is a healthcare marketing specialist living and working in Yorkshire.


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