As a health educator, I’ve focused my life’s work on helping people to achieve better health outcomes. But what happens when I step away from work and enter my personal life? I can’t just switch off my health education brain. So instead, I see all sorts of potential ways to help people. Maybe a friend of mine goes tanning, and I want to tell her about my grandfather who had melanoma and how he was lucky to lose only half of his nose. Or maybe a family member doesn’t take all of his prescribed antibiotics, and I want to lecture him on the importance of adherence.
Whether or not you are a health educator, chances are you have friends or family members you want to help from time to time. You mean it in a good-natured way; you don’t mean to be offensive. While you realize there is no possible way for you to be an example of perfect health, you know you can help them understand there are some small changes that they really should make.
So then I started thinking--what if I was developing patient education materials specifically for these family members and friends of mine? What would I do? Well first, I would think about what the barriers are to behavior change and about the insights I can gather from my family members' and friends' experiences. Next, I would think of which behavior change model might fit the situation and how I can best apply it. Finally, I would tailor messages using that behavior change model.
So I set out on a one-woman campaign to ignite health behavior change among my family members and friends. In one way, I have an advantage because I know that I can reach them and they will receive my message. I also likely have a lot of insight into their experience, cognition, and behavior. But on the other hand, I have a disadvantage because there is a chance I could offend them, putting our personal relationship at risk. But it is this very personal relationship that drives my "inner health educator" to come out. I love these people so much that I don’t want to lose them or have them experience the consequences of poor health.
Taking on Cancer
An elderly family member was undergoing treatment for cancer. At a family gathering, he mentioned the side effects he was experiencing as a result of his treatment. I asked him if he had talked about this with his doctor. He said that he hadn’t because he just figured it was "par for the course," and the doctor would speak to him if there was something that could be done. Instead of just listening empathetically like I had grown accustomed to doing, I decided to unleash my inner health educator in a personal setting. I employed the Health Belief Model and emphasized self-efficacy to prompt him to talk with the doctor about his side effects and any possible ways to alleviate them.
Tackling Tobacco Use
A friend of mine smokes. Now, I must preface this by saying that smoking is one of the hardest health behaviors to change because it is more than a behavior; it is an addiction. This friend had tried to quit in the past but was unsuccessful, so she had given up the notion of quitting. So I went back to classic behavior change theory and employed the Stages of Change Model, since it was originally conceived for smoking cessation. I urged her to think of changing her behavior as a process and not as a singular event. I have found that when you think of behavior change as an event, it can seem impossible and too daunting. So I encouraged her to try to just cut back slowly and work at quitting over time instead of going "cold turkey." I was trying to urge her from the precontemplation stage to the contemplation stage.
I think I have started to make small gains with my friends and family. Because of my success, albeit somewhat limited, I will continue using behavior change models to urge my friends and family members to engage in behavior change. And in about a month or so, I will check back on their progress to truly measure my effectiveness.