Every New Year, people around the world vow to eat less, exercise more, drink more water, quit smoking, join a gym—and the list goes on. It’s mid-January, and I’ve already broken one of my New Year’s resolutions. It was to floss every day. It’s something I know I should do, something that will keep my teeth and gums healthy. Flossing seems relatively simple and easy enough, so why after this short time have I already failed at my goal? The health educator in me should know better.
For years I’ve been helping patients analyze their motivators and barriers to changing a particular behavior. I’ve asked them questions like:
- What’s the benefit to you to adopt this new health behavior (or, for that matter, drop an unhealthy one)?
- Is your social environment set up to help support you in your change?
- What are some of the barriers to your implementing the new behavior?
- What happens if you have a setback or relapse?
These are questions I have been taught to ask when assessing a patient’s readiness to change. It's important to know the answers BEFORE we try to implement the new health behavior. A prepared person will be more likely to adopt the behavior and successfully carry it out long term.
Applying that knowledge
I would have been more successful at tackling my resolution had I asked myself the same questions I have asked of my patients. For example, my motivator to floss every day is to keep cavities and gingivitis away, which would result in few to no expensive dental bills and overall healthier teeth. I have the support of my family and others around me who believe in flossing every day and who could encourage and remind me. My biggest barrier to flossing is the extra time it takes in the morning before work or in the evening, delaying my bedtime and precious sleep. I could have prepared better by buying a new pack of minty wax dental floss, putting it by my toothbrush, and preparing to get myself up five minutes earlier in the morning to accomplish the new routine. Maybe something as simple as a sticky note on the bathroom mirror could have acted as a cue to action for my new health behavior.
Putting my dental needs aside, my broken New Year’s resolution has put into perspective what I do every day in the patient education field. We constantly ask patients to do what seem like simple tasks, such as remembering to take their medicine or calling their healthcare provider with questions. Having learned from my experience with something as easy as flossing, I see that the simple changes are often the most difficult. Often, what seems easy requires some serious thought and effort.
We need to help patients ask themselves the same questions to identify their motivators and barriers to change. Providing education where they need it the most will help prepare them to make the desired behavior change and ultimately succeed.
Manager, Health Education