The Psychology of Persuading Physicians

Over the 11 years I spent building the network at Epocrates, I learned a lot about physician behavior, motivation and the use of incentives.  And while influencing nearly 50% of U.S. physicians to use a product requires that it meet a true need, fit into their workflow and be extremely easy to use – building one of the most trusted brands in healthcare goes beyond the product.  It’s about being fanatical about understanding your users, engaging them at the right time, helping them support you and ultimately creating incredible loyalty.

Though we had a very analytical approach to user acquisition and brand strategy, I want to focus this article on something more fundamental – behavioral psychology.   Truly understanding not just physician behavior but human behavior was core to the business at Epocrates and permeated throughout our business, marketing and product strategy.  We focused early on in engaging physicians as consumers – B2C rather than B2B. Though a significant percentage of MDs are characterized as “small business owners”, we saw them as consumers first – hence, understanding human behavior, motivation, and influence drove product adoption and usage.

I was reminded of this recently listening to Dr. Robert Cialdini, speak at the 4th Annual Consumer Medicine Summit.   If you haven’t read it, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” is one of those dog eared marketing “bibles” that has remained on my shelf for years because its lessons on how to influence people are universal and timeless.  In fact, I made it required reading for some members of my team. (Future postings on other favorites such as Nudge and Predictably Irrational, coming soon!).

So in the interest of persuading many of you to think about how you can ethically have more influence with clinicians (have integrity, be honest), here are a few of my favorite principles from the publication and some examples of how we leveraged those principles at Epocrates.


This is one of my favorites – probably because I succumb to it as much as anyone.   If you give something to someone, they will feel like they owe you.  We constantly asked our users how they liked our free product and how much value it offered their practice.  For those who saw tremendous value, we were never shy about asking for help – speaking at a conference, doing monthly surveys, beta tests, writing a blog post or introducing us to a senior leader of their management team.  Shoot for the moon and if they say no, make a smaller request.  People feel bad about not reciprocating and will often agree to a second, smaller request.


It is human nature to be loss averse – potential loss almost always trumps potential gain.   How often have you heard “I think I just sold the last one but let me check in back” and miraculously one appears?   When launching new premium products, we generated significant product demand and revenue by offering pre-launch discounts and exclusive limited time only opportunities, creating a sense of scarcity and urgency.   It’s win-win for everyone.  Our loyal users get the product first and get to tell their friends about it and we generate pre-launch sales.


Probably the most used principle by healthcare marketers – using key opinion leaders to testify to the benefits of your products.  While this is valuable and you will likely never be fired for building a KOL panel, everyone wants these same clinicians and they know it.  Be clever and think about other authority figures – the long tail of influencers in healthcare technology continues to get longer.  Finding more people who influence smaller groups of people (head residents, medical school IT directors, bloggers) but are more excited and motivated to do so because they like your product will pay dividends.

Commitment and Consistency

People are obsessed with being consistent with choices they have made and actions they have taken.   Given limited connections, our brains are hardwired to look for evidence that supports our point of view.   The key is getting people to write down their beliefs –study after study shows its more effective than verbal commitments.   Companies who ask users to send a few sentences on “why they love your product” understand this principle well.


As a societal rule, people like to say yes to the requests of someone they know and like.  Back in 1999 before Facebook “likes” and the word “viral marketing” became one of the most overused phrases in marketing, we realized that the most cost-effective marketing we could do was to identify people we knew would love our product (focusing on residents and students) and get them to spread the word for us.   You can never ever do any better than having a physician tell their friend/colleague to download your product.  How we did this is fodder for another blog posting….

Social Proof

As a rule, people feel like they will make fewer mistakes by acting like their peers than going against the grain.   Assuming you do, market not only that you have the most physicians (implying you will fall behind your peers if you don’t get on board) but that people like them are using the product (the number of physicians at their hospital, students in their medical school, their department head, etc.)   Spending the extra time to segment your market and target your message is essential.

Michelle Snyder is an Executive in Residence at InterWest Partners as well as a mentor and advisor to several healthcare incubator programs and early stage healthcare information technology companies.  She led marketing efforts from launch to IPO at Epocrates and was head of the subscriber business.