While waiting for my annual physical, I enrolled in a research study. (About every other year, I participate in a research study. Two years ago, a sleep apnea study involved me spending the night in an iron lung with electrodes in my mouth and all over my head and chest. Not conducive to a good night’s sleep).
My current study centers on healthy behaviors. The study is intended to improve the health behaviors of people who are fundamentally healthy (my blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, etc. are fine) through a set of pretty modest interventions. Armed with a pedometer, a Web site for recording progress, and an every-other-week call from Maria (my “health coach”), I am supposed to:
Have one multi-vitamin each day. Duck soup.
Eat three or fewer servings of red meat each week. This takes some thought and planning, but is not that hard.
Eat five to seven servings of fruit or vegetables each day. Since I usually eat one meal a day, this has proven to be a real challenge. I tried to persuade Maria that onion rings were a vegetable. As was a cup of coffee (coffee beans come from plants) and vanilla ice cream (vanilla beans also come from plants). She wasn’t buying it. But I have been able to drink some fruit juice during the day and toss down a banana and apple, allowing me to meet this goal.
Walk 10,000 steps a day. During a normal day “at the office”, I will walk 3,000 steps. This means I have had to find an hour each day to walk to get the other 7,000 steps. Finding that hour takes some planning — for example, getting up early to walk before work. (This has turned out to be an enjoyable experience — it’s quite cool to watch the sun come up over the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument).
So far, three months into this six-month study, I have been pretty good at meeting my goals. Maria has not scolded me.
This experience has reminded me that maintaining health, restoring health, or ensuring that a disease does not progress requires that patients engage in “health behaviors.” And it has reminded me that instilling such behaviors is a multi-faceted undertaking. I am not as well versed as those that have deep experience in this area, but this study experience seems to indicate that four factors must be present.
Focus. You have to know which behaviors are the ones that must change or be performed. This can be different — lose weight, take medications, take it easy after surgery, or stop smoking — across patients and situations.
Information. The patient needs information. This information is diverse — the linkage between the behavior and health, specific data about the behavior (e.g., coffee is not a vegetable), and behavior alternatives (how many steps is a game of racquetball?)
Tools. For example, my pedometer and the Web site to daily record whether I met my goals. Depending on the behavior, there can be other tools. Some do not involve IT, like nicotine patches. Some do involve IT, such as measurement and transmission of blood pressure.
Motivation. The desire to alter one’s daily routine to adopt a more healthy routine is probably the most important factor. It is also the most complex and difficult factor. Why would I get up an hour earlier to walk when I can use that valuable time to sleep? Motivation requires motivators (desire to please, guilt, basic type A behavior to achieve a goal, interest in living long enough to play with grandkids). It requires the removal of barriers that could discourage a motivated person, such as limited access to providers. It requires feedback on progress. It requires a social structure of family or friends that are supportive. And it requires the other three factors.
We will never have a reformed or transformed health care system unless we are broadly able to engage patients in managing their health. Cost reductions and outcomes improvements in treating chronic diseases require a motivated patient. Reducing unnecessary treatments is greatly facilitated by an informed patient. Improvements in the quality of care are helped by patients who make good decisions about which providers and health plans to choose.
We can help engage patients. Clearly we can provide tools and support access to information. While recognizing its complexity, we can also help with motivation.
Motivation opportunities range from making whatever IT is involved easy to use (reducing a barriers for a motivated person) to offering graphs of progress and corny but effective “attaboy” generated phrases to avatars that exhibit motivating emotions such as disapproval to online communities of others who can offer support.
While the opportunities can be listed, we have limited understanding of how to apply IT to motivate.
I need to go eat an apple. Otherwise Maria will yell at me.
John Glaser, PhD, FCHIME is vice president and CIO at Partners HealthCare System and is also on temporary assignment as Advisor to the Office of the National Coordinator. He describes himself as an "irregular regular contributor" to HIStalk.