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Patients want choices, but that doesn’t mean they want to choose

Jim Tincher Jim Tincher 03/29/2017

I recently interviewed a specialty health care practitioner on behalf of a health device manufacturer. My client identified him as being less successful in equipping his patients with their device.

We walked through the patient experience, from scheduling to the welcome and the examination. He shared his passion for his work, and how great it felt when he was able to help his patients. He loved his job, and it showed.

But according to my client, he was far less successful at actually getting his patients to get the product that would improve their well-being.

Where was the problem?

We continued to discuss how the appointments typically end. “Once we determine the need for [device], I give my patients brochures for several different manufacturers, and tell them to go home and read them, then to let me know which one they want.”


This theme repeated itself as I interviewed more of the unsuccessful practitioners. One summed it up well when she said, “My patients deserve a choice. I don’t want to be one of these old-school [doctors] who just tell them what to do. It’s their decision.”

It’s tough to argue with that. We’re no longer in the 1950s. Today’s patients are more informed, and often insist to have a role in the decision-making process. Her philosophy was 100% right.

It’s her implementation of the philosophy that needs help.

Patients definitely want a choice. But that doesn’t mean the best options is to give them brochures and leave it to them. They want your expertise.

This situation isn’t unique to healthcare.

Almost every field has the philosophy that more choice is good. But it doesn’t always work that way.

Is “More” Always Better?

The more funds a 401(k) offers, the lower the participation rate. In their study, “How Much Choice Is Too Much?” three Columbia Business School professors found that employee participation in 401(k) plans showed significant drops when comparing plans with 10 or more options versus those offering a handful of funds. Every additional 10 investment choices reduced participation by 2 percent.

I’ve written before about Health Savings Accounts. When a company introduced pricing choice, 14% of customers never opened an account – even though just opening the account meant hundreds of dollars in funding from their employer.

Or the classic study, introduced by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. A supermarket offered 24 or 6 jams for customers to try. When they offered 24, 60% of shoppers stopped by the booth, versus 40% when they offered six (Customers want choices). But when it came to purchasing, 30% of those shoppers presented with six jams purchased, versus only 3% of those who were offered a choice of 24 (they don’t always want to choose).

The phenomenon is known as “Choice Overload.” It doesn’t happen in every purchase, or Amazon would be out of business. It’s particularly important for first-time purchases, where customers are in unfamiliar territory.

This may be the case for your customers.

How can you help them work through Choice Overload? Follow these three steps:

1. Make customers aware of their options. Patients appreciate knowing they’re not locked into one company’s devices. They want to be reassured that there are multiple. Reinforce that these exist.

2. Provide guidance. Once you’ve shared the options, take them away. Rather than forcing your customer into an ill-informed choice, make it easy to reduce the list – or eliminate it entirely. The physician can say, “We offer a number of products that can help you. I’ve looked through them, and for your specific situation, I recommend __________.” If your experience is more self-service, offer decision trees or other ways to simplify. Most 401(k) products now offer lifestyle funds to simplify the choice.

Another approach is to use social proof, saying that “People like you” use product X, such as Amazon’s approach to show that “Customers who bought this item also bought…”

3. Reinforce that other options exist. You don’t want customers to think that the other options are just for show. Reinforce that these other options are out there, in case your recommendation doesn’t work out.

Choice is hard. Too many choices lead to anxiety and procrastination. By understanding this phenomenon and planning around it, you can give them the choice – without the overload.

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