Seduce Health: What A Google Guy and Health IT Exec Are Saying to Put the Spark Back into Your Health Life

[Updated and corrected. 02/08/11 at 12 pm ET] Stern lectures about taking your heart pill as prescribed, eating right, or exercising regularly—or else—can be a real turnoff. Some people simply tune out, perhaps while eating fried chicken sandwiches with extra pickles. But might there be a way to seduce people with medical advice, tailoring the message about how they can be healthier by appealing to their dreams or desires rather than their nightmares?

To get leaders in healthcare to start talking and thinking about ways to spice up communications to patients, Google chief health strategist Roni Zeiger and Alexandra Drane, founder and president of Beverly, MA, medical message service Eliza have started a website called Seduce Health. While this is a nascent effort now, Drane says that she hopes to use it to influence leaders in healthcare to be open to new approaches to talking with patients and perhaps get those people to commit to using such approaches at their organizations to get patient to adopt healthier behaviors. [Drane is founder and president of Eliza, not the firm’s CEO, as she was previously described in this article. We regret the error.]

Healthcare can be a conservative field, in which new ideas and technologies can be slowly adopted, so it’ll be interesting to see whom else Drane and Zeiger can recruit to their new cause.

Seduce Health’s website, which went online in October, has been tackling some hot health topics like how to get people to stop smoking, calling for making quitting just as cool or seductive as starting. And the group has got some playful YouTube clips of high-profile people in healthcare—such as HHS chief technology officer Todd Park and Jamie Heywood, co-founder and chairman of Cambridge, MA-based PatientsLikeMe—delivering what’s evidently the group’s slogan, “Talk health to me, Baby.”

“In my experience as a patient and practicing physician, we tend to talk about health as set of chores and choices framed to avoid poor health, to avoid regret,” Zeiger says in an e-mail. “On the other hand, market forces have helped us evolve sexy and sophisticated messages for everything from socks to scooters. What about immunizations? I think we can make these conversations more fun and more relevant.”

While there have been serious discussions and studies on ways to change patients’ unhealthy behaviors with better communication for years, there’s evidence that the healthcare system has failed miserably at getting through to people. For instance, Americans costs the system about $290 billion per year by not taking their medicines as prescribed, and sometimes landing themselves in the hospital as a result.

Is Seduce Health capable of putting a dent in these costs by advocating for healthcare communications that strike inspirational—or even sexy—chords?

“In the healthcare space, there have certainly historically been some examples of a lack of information, but for the most part it’s been a lack of inspiration,” says Seduce Health co-founder Drane. “Most people know what they need to do to be healthy, they’re just not inspired in that moment to do it—and that moment can be ‘I reach for chips instead of carrots, I schedule time to be with my kids instead of time to get a mammogram.'”

“What the healthcare industry has done historically is that if we just keep reminding people that mammograms are important then they’ll do it—well, not necessarily,” Drane says. Her company, she says, found that a mammogram reminder with a playful message that anthropomorphized the mammogram machine, saying that it missed the patient, was 30 percent more effective in getting women to have their breasts screened for cancer than traditional messaging.

Seduce Health is now a volunteer effort with much of the staff support coming from Drane’s firm, Eliza. And, clearly, the Seduce Health effort and the for-profit company have some common interests around new ways to get patients to adopt healthy behaviors. Eliza, founded in 1999, has built a profitable business with its multimedia outreach campaigns directed toward patients. Yet, aside from Drane’s bio on Seduce Health’s website, you won’t find much mention of Eliza. “What I tried not to do with Seduce Health is make it an advertisement for Eliza,” Drane says.

Zeiger, too, says that his involvement in Seduce Health is separate from his work at Google. His experience as a practicing physician (yes, he still sees patients even though he works at Google) and patient inspired him to start Seduce Health with Drane. Drane is no stranger to healthcare outreach efforts— in 2008 she founded Engage with Grace to improve the way people talk about end-of-life arrangements.

Drane and Zeiger—who is often the face of Google Health and the Internet giant’s healthcare initiatives—first met back in October 2009 at a health IT conference where they found “in the first eight minutes of rapid-fire conversation an unbelievable amount of shared ideas, passions, fierce beliefs,” Drane says.

After being turned off by billboards in New York with chilling messages about what would happen to diabetics if they didn’t manage their disease, Zeiger reached out to Drane about getting an effort started to change the conversation.

While Seduce Health is a nonprofit effort, there’s a clear business opportunity in inspiring patients to take action in improving their health. Thanks to healthcare reform, insurance companies are going to become eligible for Medicare payment bonuses based on a rating system that is partially determined by how well the insurers do in providing preventive care. That means health plans will have an extra incentive, which kicks in next year, to entice people into getting their cholesterol checked and their bodies screened for tumors.

There have been a variety of ways that people in the medical field have been trying to motivate patients to do what is best for their health, says Tom Hubbard, a senior director at the healthcare think tank NEHI in Cambridge. So-called “patient activation,” he says, is one such school of thought that has led to a variety of methods to measure a patient’s engagement in his health and knowledge of his condition. Then there are ways of interviewing patients that elicit responses to help them realize what is preventing them from living healthier lives, and perhaps to motivate them to overcome such barriers.

“These are not messages of fear and shame or scare—like if you don’t take this, you’re health is going to worsen, and you’re going to end up in the hospital,” Hubbard says.

Drane says that one of her goals at Seduce Health is to get more leaders in mainstream healthcare organizations like health insurance companies to become more open to the new approaches to health communication advocated by the movement.

“We’ve got to wake up every day and make health sexy, we’ve got to make it desirable,” Drane says. “Here’s a great example: if you take care of your diabetes, your skin will look younger.”

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4 responses to “Seduce Health: What A Google Guy and Health IT Exec Are Saying to Put the Spark Back into Your Health Life”

  1. Getting people to do anything is a difficult task unless they are motivated to do so. The whole motivational industry exists because change is hard for many people and people often need to be psyched up in order to make changes in their lives. Even with such motivation, in many cases, interest fades unless people see immediate benefits or develop an internal drive that sustains them.

    That said, building applications that provide that shot of motivation regularly do have potential for improving health amongst those who will respond to external motivation.

  2. Sophia Shevitz says:

    Sophia Shevitz