René Descartes

Meditations on communicating with Healthcare Professionals

Back in October 1994, like the majority of Philosophy undergraduates who had gone before me, and I imagine like the majority since, I began to wrestle with the joys of René Descartes’ ‘Meditations on first philosophy’ and his theory of ‘dualism’. Now as the pub philosophers amongst you will no doubt know, in this fun-filled publication, Descartes essentially doubts everything, but ends up stating that the only thing that he can’t doubt is the fact that:

‘ego sum res cogitans’ or ‘I am a thinking thing.’

Often summed up as ‘Cogito ergo sum’ ‘I think therefore I am’.

He proposed that our minds and our bodies are completely different types of substance and that our senses, and our emotions could be doubted. (I distinctly remember the analogy of a straight stick being placed into water and appearing bent to prove this point). But that our ability to think could never be in doubt. Essentially that we are rational beings. So, it is with my surface knowledge of Cartesian thought that I’d like to blame my old friend René, for making us all think that the best way to communicate with a human being is rationally, through reason, and thus creating a ‘reasoned argument’ by which to persuade them. To be fair, it’s probably not his fault, but have you ever read ‘Meditations on first philosophy’? (I thought not…)

Now, I think we’d all agree that one area where we have moved away from this notion of only communicating rationally with humans is in the world of Business to Consumer (B2C) marketing. Here it’s been accepted that when buying something your decision-making process is often built on values around status, security, belonging or comfort, values that are, in fact, often driven by our emotions. Take one look at any consumer ad campaign and this becomes clear. The ‘facts’ are often left to the end of the ad, if they even appear at all.

It was the Nobel prize-winning, Israeli-American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman who asserted in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ that we actually feel before we consciously think, even though we’re often not conscious of the fact. ‘System 1’ thinking, which engages first, is fast instinctive and emotional whereas ‘System 2’ thinking is slower deliberate and more logical or rational.


The best way to bring this to life is to think back to all those couples you’ve seen wandering round houses on the show Location, Location, Location. On the first visit to any property (the couples always say property on this programme as that’s the correct language of estate agents.) it’s easy to see that these couples are buying emotionally. They’re buying with their hearts. ‘Oh look at the kitchen; we can have great dinner parties in here.’ ‘This really feels like home’.

But then Phil and Kirsty always tell them to return to the place a few days later when it becomes clear they are now looking at the same house in a more rational way; ‘We’d need to do something about that boiler and the central heating and that would cost two to three grand’ ‘I’m not sure it would work for us having the bathroom downstairs and out through the kitchen. We’d need to look at moving that upstairs.’ ‘There’s more than enough room for us upstairs, as our family grows.’

Visit one, is buying emotionally. Visit two is more deliberate, logical and rational. Justifying their heart’s decision to buy or not to buy.

Obviously, I’m hugely oversimplifying the path to purchase here, but I do believe that essentially, B2C transactions work in this way. The consumer is sold emotionally and then rationalises or post-rationalises that decision in order to justify that purchase.

So how does decision making take place in the B2B space and is there really any difference from B2C?

Historically I think, marketers have felt that B2B communications have had to be different. Surely, if you’re buying on behalf of an organisation or business then your need for rational information, data and facts outweigh any emotional needs? Buyers, unlike consumers, want facts and figures as they prepare to share a business case to back their proposed product choice with their colleagues. Right?

Wrong. Buyers in the B2B space are human too. They have emotional drivers at the point of purchase just like consumers do. To not engage emotionally with this audience is a mistake. The difference being, however, that their need for facts does outweigh that which is required by the majority of consumers.

In Kahneman’s language their System 1 thinking still kicks in first, but their System 2 thinking is more involved, lasts longer and requires more facts. When communicating to this audience we need to address those emotional drivers, but we must then satisfy their need for rational content. Often, through the use of narrative, these 2 can be intertwined. The magic, that sparks a buyers interest and satisfies their emotional needs and the logic they need to justify their decision to themselves and then often to their colleagues through the creation of a business case.


A famous piece of B2B communication that recognised this was the ‘No-one ever got fired for buying IBM’ campaign. Here IBM were playing to the emotions of the buyer, namely fear, uncertainty and doubt, but then the campaign was backed up by the necessary rational information that the buyer needed to use to convince both themselves and their colleagues why IBM was a good choice. As after all emotion is supposed to play no part in hard, business decisions.

So to oversimplify again; B2C comms need to engage emotionally, then offer the rational content, whilst B2B comms need that emotional hook and then require more rational content – the magic and then the logic is needed for both, but in differing quantities.

Now, let’s take a look at how this plays out in a very specialised, but increasingly required area of communicating. Businesses communicating to Health Care Professionals (HCPs) – Nurses, Doctors, Dentists, Podiatrists, in fact anyone who has a professional role to make a medical decision on behalf of their patients. How should businesses selling to these individuals communicate?

Typically, I think this model has followed that of a traditional B2B piece of communication. No, or minimal emotional content, playing to our System 1 thinking followed by serious amounts of System 2 content; clinical data, facts, figures and rational information. In recent years, as in good B2B comms, the emotional content has, in fact, been dialed up so to the inexperienced eye it would appear that communicating with HCPs is just good B2B marketing, but to me, this isn’t quite right.

Now I’ve had nearly 20 years experience of communicating with this audience and I’ve always felt that they are unique in terms of what they require. Without much thought, most of us would see that the B2C model isn’t right with these guys, they obviously need considerable, rational content. But what’s wrong with a modern B2B model? I think that model is wrong because it only goes so far.

An HCP, much like any business audience, needs a strong emotional hook, which speaks to their needs as a healthcare professional in order to engage them. They then require the essential clinical data, case studies and cost comparisons that satisfy their System 2 thinking and can be shared with their colleagues to justify their decision, but there’s something else they must do too. And this is where they are really unique. A healthcare professional, once sold on what they think is the right decision, has to recommend or ‘sell’ that decision to the patient, as after all, the patient is the ‘end user’.

Surely this is the same as a buyer needing to justify their decision to buy an IBM to their colleagues I hear you say. Well, no, I don’t think it is.

When a healthcare professional suggests a product or treatment to a patient the patient isn’t ‘buying’ in the same way as a businessperson taking a recommendation from their colleague. The latter plays out as ‘Geoff’s suggesting the business needs some new computers and that IBM are the one’s we should get.’ The former plays out as ‘The dentist is telling me I would benefit from straightening my teeth and that, to do so, I should use modern, clear aligners rather than traditional braces.’ What’s the difference? Controversially I think the difference is that the patient is a consumer, not a businessperson. They need the HCP, the professional voice recommending a product or service to them, to ‘sell’ to them using B2C methodology rather than the B2B.


The patient needs content to satisfy their System 1 thinking, and then their System 2. And here’s the critical issue. The HCP is hard-wired to ‘sell’ to the patient using B2B methodology – the facts and the figures. I believe it’s the responsibility of the company making the product or service to arm the HCP with that System 1 content as well as the rational information. The effect of this is that the B2HCP (business to healthcare professional) methodology is in fact B2B & B2C combined – it’s emotion to spark the HCP’s interest, followed by in-depth, solid, clinical evidence, followed by emotion (more than in the first instance and to spark the patient’s emotional response) followed by evidence (less than in the first instance and to satisfy the patients rational responses, not the HCPs).

What makes this confusing scenario even more interesting is that when a business is selling to an HCP, the HCP is not only thinking about whether they are sold on the idea of the product or service, but they’re also thinking ‘how will I ‘sell’ this to my patients?’ The businesses that address both these issues in their communications to HCPs (the B2B for the healthcare professional and the B2C for their patients) are the ones who will do best. Selling to the HCP is only half the job. Giving them the tools and content to have the best possible consultation with their patient closes the deal.


The great thing is that whilst at face value this appears complicated (you’re having to move from the emotional to the rational and back to emotional and rational again) there is a way to join this all up. To merge the magic and the logic…and that’s through the power of storytelling. Stories have a phenomenal way of making the switch from the emotional to the rational completely natural, they bridge the gap, they join the dots, they help us make sense of the world. Stories teach us to put our audience first and when selling to HCPs that means adopting a B2HCP model – selling to them with a story, whilst giving them the story to help them in their consultation with their patients.

You could argue it’s a new form of dualism!