How do you get patients to stick with the plan?
Compliance to a medical treatment can be challenging, to say the least. Patients want to be healthier, more active, and more energetic. Yet time and time again, they fall off the wagon and resort to going back into the same old habits that don’t support their progress. Why? (Click here for a flashback on 5 Bad Habits that Lead to Weight Gain)
For health care providers, it can be frustrating to check in with a patient and hear that their diet or exercise plan isn’t going so well. But it can also help to understand how habits form so you can not only help set realistic expectations for your patient, but also for yourself.
Studies on habit formation have shown that habits form as part of a three-step process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold (i.e. hunger). Then, there’s the routine, which is the actual behavior that we associate as being the “bad habit.” The third step is the reward: Something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future. In the case of overweight patients, the pleasure of enjoying “off-limits” food can be their reward. (Learn more about this physiological pleasure connection for those suffering from food addiction in our free white paper.)
Neuroscience has shown that habitual behavior and conscious decision-making are handled by two different parts of the brain, and the area of the brain that controls habits can often supersede and shut down the decision-making area. So when patients revert back to old habits, it is not that they are just battling low motivation or self-control. Their brains are hardwired to return to the behavior that it is used to, even when they no longer benefit from it.
So what can health care providers do?
First off, be patient with your patients. It’s not that they are less committed to their goals; for many it can just be that they require a little more time to relearn healthier habits. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. And there will be trips along the way.
Secondly, don’t stress too much about when they mess up. Researchers have found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Reassure your patients that an occasional binge is not the end of the world and encourage them to get back on the horse.
Third, understand that old habits are not forgotten, but replaced with new ones. We can’t magically expect patients to stop a damaging behavior without providing an easier alternative. For overweight people who have an unhealthy relationship with food, there can be a benefit to introducing something like meal replacements. Rather than expecting patients to completely change how they relate to food, they can replace their normal food habits with an easy shake or bar and make it part of a new routine that is easier to implement.
Dr. Valerie Sutherland of Rainier Medical Weight Loss and Wellness notes, “[Patients] typically report that taking food away for a period made a huge difference, even if only for a month. Since food can be addictive for some people, taking it away completely can be crucial for long term change, which is the opposite eﬀect that you may be warned about by some critics of a short term rapid weight loss program that is ‘unsustainable.’”
For a more help on helping patients set realistic goals they can stick with, instantly download our free Short Term Goal Helper Worksheet!
Sources: NPR, MIT News, HuffPost
Blog written by Vanessa Ramalho/Robard Corporation