Have you used a planner or health tracker such as FitBit, Apple’s Activity App, Bullet Journal, or Best Self Journal? I’ve discovered, through designing and experimenting with habit tracking, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Changing habits is no easy feat—especially when it comes to lifelong health habits.
Throughout my ideation process as a Health for America (HFA) at MedStar Health fellow, I’ve spoken with many clinicians who understand the importance of habit change—but rarely have time to address the topic and treat the whole patient during a routine appointment.
This is just one of the many benefits of Shared Medical Appointments (SMAs), which I had the opportunity to pilot under the leadership of MedStar’s Dr. Theresa Stone for culinary and lifestyle medicine. SMAs are group medical visits in which several patients are seen at the same time by a clinician for follow-up about or management of the same chronic condition. This means we had the time to get to know patients, understand and help address their barriers to habit change, and celebrate their successes, large and small.
Throughout our pilot process, I’ve learned a lot about what might make habit change successful. As I continue in my ideation process and move toward implementing a new idea within Integrative Medicine initiatives at the MedStar Institute for Innovation (MI2), I’ll keep in mind these key steps to lasting habit change:
Step 1: Change the Frame of Mind
Early on in our HFA experience, Sharon and I met with Dr. Ed Tori, Director of the MI2 Center for Health Influence and Engagement. He explained that the psychological lens through which patients view their wellness greatly affects their chances of successful habit change. There are three personal factors to consider regarding frame of mind:
People who affect habit change inspire or motivate patients to change their habits. Identifying these people often helps the patients attach deeper meaning to getting healthier.
Personal beliefs can be energizing or limiting. Discovering what is holding patients back from making positive health changes is challenging. If they believe they’re at fault, they’re not worth it, or their barriers are stronger than their power, they’ll need to overcome these beliefs.
Behaviors learned at a young age are hard to break. Some habits are good, like buckling our seat belts, but others can be detrimental to good health, like if we were taught to clear our plates (no matter how stuffed we were). It takes time to replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones.
Step 2: Recognize Barriers
Similar to building empathy in design thinking, understanding barriers to habit change is imperative to patient success. Many patients do not have access to a gym, they may live in a food desert, or they may work three jobs. This information can help healthcare practitioners work with their patients to offer changes that support their current lifestyle.
Step 3: Make Small, Enjoyable Changes
Results of habit change studies show that small changes are adopted quickly with increased impact. Drinking more water, substituting whole grain bread for white bread, or walking five to ten thousand steps are just a few small changes that can put anyone on the path toward healthier living.
Writing down and reflecting on progress in a journal or app can be inspirational and motivational and can help providers track the patient’s progress. In addition, it can help the patient notice the benefits, such as improved energy.
It’s not simple to design care plans or programs that facilitate lifestyle changes. SMAs are just one up-and-coming style of medical appointments that can affect how patients and providers approach the above steps for habit change. Because of individual differences and the numerous aspects of a ‘holistic lifestyle,’ more extensive and longer-term research and consideration are needed. This topic is certainly one I’ll continue to study during my time as an HFA fellow, and one the MedStar’s Integrative Medicine leaders will be focused on for years to come.