Applying 5 Principles of Persuasion to Improve Physician-Patient Engagement


Have you ever thought about how much healthier patients would be if they just followed their caregivers’  instructions? It’s a frustration that virtually all caregivers feel because the consequences of patients’ non-compliance are very real in terms of morbidity and mortality, not to mention costs. 

Within the last decade, patients have become active participants in their care—often seeking online reviews to determine from whom they receive care. As a result, your physicians cannot simply dictate care but must engage patients in new ways to increase patient adherence to health advice. One method that has grown in popularity within the last decade, and is used across multiple industries (including healthcare) is the practice of the Principles of Persuasion.

It’s important to note that there are 6 Principles of Persuasion, developed by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D.; however, applying the Principle of Scarcity in a healthcare setting, can present an ethical dilemma. We recommend deploying the five principles listed below.

Read, ‘Transcending Life Experience Into Influence.

5 Principles of Persuasion to Improve Physician-Patient Engagement & Adherence

  1. Reciprocity

The power of reciprocity is immense. A great way to put this into action is by giving patients a useful promotional item as they are checking out at the desk before leaving their appointment. It can be as small as a branded pen, reusable face mask, hand sanitizer, tissue packet, or digital thermometer. This is a particularly effective tactic dentists have employed for years. 

Once the patient accepts the small gift, the staff member can then book a follow-up appointment. The patient will be more likely to commit to another appointment.

“Simply put, people are obliged to give back to others the form of a behavior, gift, or service that they have received first.” — Robert Cialdini, Ph.D.

  1. Liking

The Principle of Liking is genuinely powerful. In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, 261 patients and 44 physicians were asked after a medical visit how much they liked each other and how much they felt liked, along with additional questions about patient health, physician/patient satisfaction, and the patient’s affective state. Here is what happened at the 1-year follow-up.

“The physician’s liking for the patient was positively associated with the following variables: better patient health, more positive patient affective state after the visit, more favorable patient ratings of the physician’s behavior, greater patient satisfaction with the visit, and greater physician satisfaction with the visit. The patient’s liking for the physician was positively associated with better self-reported health, a more positive affective state after the visit, more favorable ratings of the physician’s behavior, and greater visit satisfaction. Both the physician’s liking for the patient and the patient’s liking for the physician positively predicted the patient’s satisfaction 1 year later and were associated with a lower likelihood that the patient considered changing physicians during the year.”

“People prefer to say yes to those that they like.” — Robert Cialdini, Ph.D.

  1. Consistency

Activate ‘consistency’ by looking for, and asking for, small initial commitments from patients. Interventions, like consistently requesting patient feedback, encourages patients to speak with their doctor about additional health-related issues that can improve the quality of care. This can be delivered via secure messaging systems that allow for direct messaging between patients and physicians. In addition, staff members can provide patients with appointment cards at checkout and request them to handwrite their next appointment time and date. As a result, patients are more likely to commit to memory and make a subconscious effort to go to the next patient follow-up visit.

“People like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done.” — Robert Cialdini, Ph.D.

  1. Authority

According to Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., “the Principle of Authority is the idea that people follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts.” Persuade the situation by introducing the staff member who will give patient instructions and position them as the expert in teaching patients. Patients are far more likely to follow care instructions if they feel they are speaking with someone who possesses expertise in the field.

You are the “Authority”- Your instruction carries weight. — Redelmeier, D. A., & Cialdini, R. B. (2002)

  1. Social Proofing/Consensus

Factual storytelling is a valuable influencer for social proofing. People often look at the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own. In a study published by Duke University, participants were tested on whether descriptive norm information would influence hypothetical treatment choices in the case of a cancer-treatment scenario. The results were interesting; “Exact statistics about other people’s decisions had a greater effect than when norms were described using less precise verbal terms (e.g., “most women”)…Strategic presentation of such statistics, when available, may encourage patient outliers to modify their medical decisions in ways that result in improved outcomes.”

“Whether he wants to be or not, the doctor is a storyteller, and he can turn our lives into good or bad stories, regardless of the diagnosis…In learning to talk to his patients, the doctor may talk himself back into loving his work. He last little to lose and everything to gain by letting the sick man into his heart.” — Anatole Broyard, from Intoxicated by My Illness

Having a well-thought-out plan of care is critical to helping the ill get well, and the healthy remain in good condition; however, the plan only works if it is followed. Physicians can build a strong foundation for communication with their patients by employing these five principles of persuasion. These methods will improve patient behavior and facilitate favorable outcomes.


Jackson Physician Search wishes to thank Marion Spears Karr, MA, for contributing this timely and important article. 

Marion Spears Karr, MA joined Tyler and Company in 2018 and serves as Vice President. With 30+ years of experience in healthcare executive recruiting and talent acquisition, Marion brings a distinguished set of skills in leading successful recruitment teams that specialize in nursing leadership, C-level, Vice President and Senior Director-level searches.

Jackson Physician Search and Tyler & Company belong to the Jackson Healthcare family of companies.  Contact Tyler & Company to discuss how they can help your organization achieve operational efficiency by matching the best possible candidates for your unique executive and interim healthcare leadership needs. Contact Jackson Physician Search for permanent recruitment of physicians, physician leaders and advanced practice providers for hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers and medical groups across the United States.

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