Behavioral science in a German dentist’s office: the power of timely reminders

  • By Barry Fischer
  • September 26, 2012

As the German proverb goes, Vorbeugen ist besser als Heilen – prevention is better than cure. One group of German dentists noticed that too few of their patients were following these words of wisdom… at least when it came to scheduling their annual dental check-ups. Armed with concern, curiosity and an incentive to see their patients more often, these dentists recently paired with a team of behavioral scientists to test the power and effectiveness of reminders.

The researchers’ hypothesis was straightforward: namely, that sending people simple check-up “reminders” (e.g. every six months) would significantly increase the number of patients scheduling appointments.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a randomized control experiment (methodologically similar to those conducted by Opower) that consisted of two groups of patients: the first group would receive check-up reminder postcards (like the one below) when they were due for an appointment; a control group would not get postcards.

Source: Altmann & Traxler, 2012

What was the impact of the reminders? Patients who received them were more than twice as likely to schedule a check-up. During the month after reminders were sent, 19.3% of reminded patients scheduled appointments, compared to just 8.9% of non-reminded patients. Even after 100 days, reminded patients were still far more likely to have scheduled appointments.

The simple postcard reminders for dental checkups were tremendously effective. Why exactly? As the authors explain, the postcards helped to address two fundamental aspects of human behavior:

1) People are forgetful (or, as the authors euphemistically put it, “memory-limited”) about when to schedule periodic events like preventive healthcare check-ups; and

2) People tend to procrastinate on performing a given task, unless they clearly understand that it makes the most sense to do it now.

The universality of these human tendencies suggest that well-timed reminders, or “prompts,” are some of the most simple and cost-effective ways to promote positive behavioral changes. For example, recent experiments have also demonstrated the effectiveness of prompts in motivating people to save more moneyget vaccinated, and go to the gym. And the application of timely and well-deployed prompts can be similarly powerful in motivating energy-efficiency behavior, especially with respect to periodic actions such as tuning up heating/air-conditioning systems (which are responsible for approximately 50% of US home energy use) and replacing air filters.

We’ll remain on the lookout for additional behavioral insights from the healthcare arena, and wherever else fascinating studies like this one (see Nudges at the Dentist, by Altmann and Traxler) may pop up.

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Outlier explores trends in how people are using energy in the US and around the world. Pulling from an unprecedented (and still growing) amount of energy data—currently drawn from 50 million homes—Opower crunches energy-use information from more than 90 utility partners every day, and cross-references that with weather, household, and demographic information to produce compelling analyses in the Outlier series.