Persuading men of a certain age to get skin cancer signs checked out is no mean feat. For many people, it’s easier to ignore the warning signs than bother the GP with a seemingly minor ailment.
But research shows that men aged 50-plus are particularly reluctant to come forward early, which explains why skin cancer deaths are highest among men of this age, even though more women get the disease.
This is a key problem for the health sector because later-stage diagnosis of skin cancer makes it more difficult to treat people and save lives.
The rewards for successfully changing these behaviours and encouraging more men aged over 50 to present early are obvious but critical: the sooner they come the more likely they are to be referred and treated successfully; and the treatment itself will be more cost-effective because it’s cheaper to treat early-stage than late-stage skin cancer – the annual cost of skin cancer is estimated at more than £100m in England alone.
We have been working with Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health on cancer campaigns for many years. In all initiatives aimed at changing a specific type of behaviour, it’s important to understand who you’re targeting, what factors are behind their current activity (or lack of action) and what the motivation would be for them to change.
CRUK was keen to understand which channels were best for engaging patients and driving early GP visits. It tested three approaches in a campaign covering areas of Dorset Cancer Network. In Weymouth, residents were targeted with a roadshow offering skin checks. In Christchurch, ‘hit squad’ street teams met people to talk one-to-one. And lastly, direct mailpacks featuring a personalised letter and fold-out advice leaflet was sent to men in North Dorset. In all cases, patients were given information on skin cancer signs and a prompt to visit their GP if concerned.
Traditionally, ‘big noise’ tactics have been deemed the best way of changing attitudes towards making a GP appointment by many in the NHS and cancer charities alike. This time, however, direct mail was the clear winner. Not only did the mailpack have a much lower cost per engagement, and ultimately cost per referral, than the other two methods, its prompted recall was the highest of all three channels. Tellingly, it provoked significantly more presentations. Direct mail is already being rolled out to other areas of the country.
The Dorset campaign shows how setting the wheels of behaviour change in motion can lead to quick gains for health commissioners looking to make long-term savings from sustained alterations in attitudes. By persuading more men over 50 to check themselves for possible signs of skin cancer, direct mail has begun to change the way in which this vulnerable age group thinks and acts.
Belinda Miller is director of insight and context at Corporate Culture