A nudge in the right direction? Using behavioural insights in health

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Behavioural insight is a term which has been increasingly heard across a range of policy areas worldwide in the past decade. Essentially it involves using a combination of psychology, economics and studies of behaviour and decision making to better understand how people react to specific interventions, and evaluating and learning lessons from the way people react to help decision makers to develop better, more effective policies.

Its application has been widespread in the USA and Europe. In the UK, first under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and then more recently under the Conservative administrations in the UK, the approach has gained increasing traction, with the establishment of a UK government “behavioural insights team”.

The Behavioural Insights Team, also known as The Nudge Unit, is now a social purpose company. It is partly owned by the Cabinet Office, employees and Nesta

The coronavirus crisis has posed a big challenge for those who need to be seen to be creating policies that protect and support the public. It has also been challenging for those trying to predict how people will respond, whether they will comply and how we can “nudge” the public to make what the government sees as “better” choices.

As well as informing steps to ease lockdown and the recovery from coronavirus, behavioural insights is being more widely applied to understand how people make choices in relation to their health, and how these can be applied to preventative health measures and health based inequalities.

Nudging as part of policymaking

Nudging as a technique has been used widely across a number of different policy areas, including criminal justice and education. Its application in relation to public health has been wide ranging and has had significant implications for health policy of previous governments.

Key policy areas in public health for the UK behavioural insight team include:

  • antimicrobial resistance
  • vaccination
  • obesity
  • mental health

Using behavioural insights across all of these areas, the idea is to develop an understanding of how people think about these topic areas as issues and how their behaviour is influenced by their own thoughts, patterns of behaviour and environmental factors like ease of access to services.

Techniques like direct incentives (such as vouchers in return for healthy behaviour), measures that restrict choice (like restricting takeaways from schools), and outright bans (such as the restriction on smoking in public places) are all interventions designed in one way or another to “nudge” us towards certain behaviours.

Steps like text message reminders for appointments, offering salads or fruit instead of fries as a side, or opt out organ donation are further examples of how behavioural science techniques are being applied to encourage people to make healthier choices and reduce the strain on health services.

Many of the steps being taken are designed not only to save time and money for the public and organisations delivering services, but also to help encourage early intervention and preventative action, a key focus of public health strategies in the UK.

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A crucial role to play in understanding vaccine rollout

Vaccination decisions can be a complicated and emotive process, but with the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine understanding the routes to uptake and how people make decisions on vaccination are more important than ever.

Behavioural scientists have been at the forefront of the vaccinations programme, looking to create a better and more thorough understanding of how to manage the rollout and develop an understanding of how people see the benefits and challenges of vaccination, both collective and individual.

The ‘Increasing Vaccination Model’ they say is a helpful framework for categorising the barriers to vaccination and possible behavioural interventions. The evidence indicates that closing the ‘intention–behaviour gap’ in vaccination behaviour by improving ease of access (and thus removing practical barriers to vaccination) is the most effective type of intervention. In contrast, focusing on motivation or educational interventions appears to be less helpful.

However, behavioural scientists have noted that in relation to the coronavirus vaccine even more barriers exist, with one survey reporting that 16 per cent of UK adults would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ avoid a COVID-19 vaccine. There is a suggestion that compressed development timelines, misinformation and media reporting could all undermine confidence and therefore uptake. Behavioural scientists are working hard to understand what steps could be taken to understand vaccine hesitancy and improve uptake across all communities in the UK and internationally.

Final thoughts

Behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques have been part of policy making for the best part of ten years. They aim to help policymakers understand people’s reactions to policies and use this insight to help more effective policy in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a new and challenging opportunity for behavioural insights and has required them to apply their knowledge and understanding of how policy is applied and received like never before, with vaccine rollout being just one key area, along with other lockdown measures which require mass compliance in order to be effective.

How behavioural insights will continue to inform the recovery and public health strategies more widely remains to be seen, but it does appear that for the meantime at least, the “nudging” will continue.


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Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help

SPP screenshot2016 has been described as “make or break time for the NHS”, and with pressures on finances increasing, social care and public health are in the spotlight. Around £1 in every £5 of NHS spending is estimated to be the result of ill health attributable to the big five risk factors of smoking, alcohol, poor diet, obesity and inactivity. Investing in prevention, and understanding the complex wider community and social factors that lead to poor health, is therefore important. In cash-strapped local authorities however, investment in preventative projects can be sidelined in the face of tackling acute issues.

Prevention and behaviour change are linked

Recent health policy has included an expectation that individuals should take greater responsibility for their own health. But where we are talking about behaviour change, there is no quick fix. Glib use of the term ‘nudge’ to promote change can suggest that laziness is the only issue. However, research such as that by the King’s Fund has highlighted that motivation and confidence are essential if people are to successfully modify their health behaviours.

Practitioners within the field of both public health and social care need help understanding what works – but as two great recent blogs from the Alliance for Useful Evidence noted, change can be achieved in multiple ways and evidence shouldn’t be used to prove a service works but as part of a journey of improvement and learning.

We talk about the “caring professions”, but it seems that it can be difficult to maintain a focus on the ‘person not the patient’ when budgets are being cut. Well-reported issues such as the rise in the use of 15-minute home care appointments are just one symptom of this. More generally, making time to consider alternative approaches or learn from good practice elsewhere can be hard. That is where having access to a trusted database can help.

Trusted source of research and ideas

The Alliance for Useful Evidence, most recently in its practice guide to using research evidence, has highlighted the importance of using trusted sources rather than “haphazard online searches”. One of these resources is Social Policy and Practice, a database which we have contributed to for twelve years.

“SPP is useful for any professional working in the field of social care or social work who can’t get easy access to a university library.” Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016

The partners who contribute to the database – Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service, National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – are all committed to sharing their focused collections with the wider world of researchers and to influence policy and practice.

Social Policy and Practice is the UK’s only national social science database embracing social care, social policy, social services, and public policy. It boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature.

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.


Find out more about the development of the Social Policy and Practice database in this article from CILIP Update. Update is the leading publication for the library, information and knowledge management community and they’ve given us permission to share this article.

If you are interested in using the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database for evidence and research in health and social care, please visit www.spandp.net for more information and to request a free trial.

Read some of our other blogs on evidence use in public policy:

Do people think rationally… or do they need a nudge?

brain with nudge ideas

by Alan Gillies

One of the benefits of working in any information service, and in the IDOX Information Service in particular, is the way you tend to find relevant information in unexpected sources. Thus, for example, we recently came across an interesting article on behaviour change, not in a psychology or management journal, but in the most recent issue of Environmental Health News.

“Until the 1970s it was generally accepted that people were rational in their thinking…” claims the article, before going on to outline the development of ‘nudge’ theory which aims to use subtle methods to encourage people to change their behaviour rather than relying on a rational decision Continue reading