The Health Attention War

“Focus is the new IQ.” –Cal Newport

Looking forward to flying out to DC to catch the Engage Conference June 5-6 (follow hashtag #MCengage) and an Institute of Medicine workshop on “Creating Equal Opportunities for Healthy Weight,” June 6-7. At both events my attention will be on the subject of attention. We can’t get action towards better health and the triple aim without it.

I’m particularly interested in one session at the IOM Workshop on “Advertising, Promotion, and Education: Bringing Health Equity to the Message Environment.”

Advertising is, of course, about messaging, but before messaging comes attention. We need equity in both messaging and attention.

At the risk of pitching another “war on something,” we need to win the attention war between healthy choices and unhealthy choices. (Side note, there should be a word for “unhealth,” not illness, but choices and actions that steer one’s path away from health.)

If we’re going to reduce costs, we’ll need to fight the attention war for healthy choices with the same weapons advertisers have used for years for unhealthy choices.

So, my focus at both meetings will be on the issue of attention, how to get it, how to keep it, and how to use it to form new habits.

Battlefronts in The Attention War

A couple of weeks ago I was at an ACO think-tank in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is, of course, a city built on “refocusing” attention (but largely not in the health direction). It’s a great place to think about the battle we’re up against in the health attention war.

Viewing the healthcare attention battlefront of Las Vegas is, to say the least, an uphill battle.

From Las Vegas, it’s easy to see that we have an attention deficit in health. Health is in our national attentional blind spot. We don’t pay attention to health until it’s too late, and objects may be larger than they appear.

The Weapons

And so the war has been one-sided. Unhealthy has business models, resources, massive amounts of data, and plenty of knowledge about how to get our attention, or, I should say, to distract us (perhaps no place is this more apparent than a casino). Unhealthy has marketing departments. They’ve learned a lot about our neural wiring to distract us to buy products and make decisions that negatively impact our health. Itza Pizza! Got milk? Chef don’t judge!

They’re funny! They’re catchy! But over the long term, they’ve taken their toll.

We live in the age of distraction: a million tweets, updates, emails, notifications and advertisements constantly battle for our attention.

But these are just weapons in the attention war, and we can turn them in health’s favor.

Marketers learned long ago that attention ultimately drives action and actions drive economics. It’s hard enough just to keep up. How can we shift priorities and maintain our attention on better health and building the business case for attention in the right direction? What will it take to harness good decisions? Is it possible? Are our brains just wired to unhealthy behavior, adapted to an era of plentiful, cheap calories and low caloric needs at a time when most of us are not chasing down our meals? The “I want that” part of the brain is loud and continuous in our world.

Given how our brains were adapted for a different time and different caloric access and requirements, we may actually be doing better than suspected. Plentitude is not a bad problem to have on the list of societal problems, but it’s unsustainable with our current biology.

There are glimmers that the tide is turning. There are wellness programs that are highly sought by employees. Gyms are crowded. Races and runs get thousands of entrants across a wide range of ages.

And with digital tools, attention and activity are more measurable than ever. That gives us the capacity to really learn what works to steer this massive ship of attention toward better health. There are even apps and programs, like luminosity, now advertised on TV, to measure and improve our attention. (Where else to find someone who needs help with attention than in front of the TV?).

An Army of Individuals

So, our arms development for harnessing attention is better than ever, but we’ll also need to pull people and resources to the side of health. Almost everyone is a willing recruit: we all want better health at an affordable cost. And we’ll all need to join, the war will be fought with a billion individual decisions made by each of us every day.

In advertising terms, there’s a historical model called AIDA, for Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention is the first front, the first battle in this war, and it’s a battle that we have no choice but to win. Losing the war will break the bank.

So these are my thoughts as I turn my attention in DC to the topic of attention. We are in a war for attention in health care. To achieve the triple aim, it comes down to behavior change and aligning patients, physicians and all caregivers toward value-based medicine. All starts with where individual attention is focused. It’s true that most of us don’t think much about health until it’s too late, and that needs to change before it breaks us.

If you’ve been distracted before getting to the last line in this post, not to worry, in a future post I’ll propose a strategy to win the attention war.

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Leonard is Principal and Co-Founder at VivaPhi, an agency that solves multi-disciplinary business problems involving data science, software, biomedical science, behavioral science, health care, product design, community development, marketing, consumer engagement and organizational design. He has been quoted in Forbes and other top-tier publications for thought leadership on patient and consumer engagement. In addition to his role at VivaPhi, he is Chair of the Marketing and Communications Group for the Collaborative Health Consortium. Prior to VivaPhi he held the position of Vice President of Operations at Capitis Healthcare International as well as executive positions with several startups. He started his career as a software requirements analyst on Qwest Communication’s highest priority IT project while earning a triad of advanced degrees from the University of Colorado. These included an MBA, a Master’s of Science in Information Systems and a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences (Thesis on System Dynamics in Parkinson’s Disease). Leonard earned a Bachelor’s in Zoology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He’s interested in how systems evolve, and how to help them evolve, in a variety of unique contexts. Connect with Leonard: @leonardkish, LinkedIn and Google+

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