Broken Promises: Is Medical Non-Compliance Due to Apathy?

Believe me, I know it can be frustrating to counsel employees regarding health risks only to have them not follow your advice.  But could that very counseling be one of the issues preventing compliance?  

Often health risk counseling has to do with, well, health and risks. It can be foreboding to the client and certainly lacks joy, pleasure and meaning for changing behavior, which according to research are necessary for sustainable change to reduce risk factors. Plus, some of this non-compliance is hard wired in our neurons. We fail to sustain new habits because our human brains crave routine and resist change. It’s very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old patterns. This might appear as apathy, or lacking motivation and intention, but really is ‘a norm’ that is quite frustrating to the actual person. It is disappointing when considering that,

  • Despite documented benefits of cardiac rehabilitation, adherence to programs is suboptimal with an average dropout rate of between 24% and 50%. 
  • Recommended glycemic goals are achieved by less than 50% of patients, which may be associated with decreased adherence to therapies.

However, consider these statistics:

  • 12% of individuals making New Year’s resolutions will keep them; and 80% have thrown their resolutions to the wind by February – 80% within 30 days!
  • Estimates are as high as 67% of unused gym memberships – 67%!  Yet these same 67% join again, and again. Gyms bank on this fact year after year. 
  • Fitness tracker use rapidly declines 6 months from purchase. And research indicates that those using fitness trackers have few health benefits or weight loss than those who stop use.
  • 95% of those who lose weight by dieting gain it back – including WW and other ‘lifestyle’ change programs.  Plus, up to two-thirds of those gain back more than they lost. 

It is our norm to want to change, but revert back into old habits, even when facing chronic health conditions. Michelle Segar calls this epidemic of starting-quitting-starting-quitting the Vicious Cycle of Failure and states it’s the only way most of us have learned to care for our bodies.  This is despite our best intentions and motivation for change. After several years of failure, many – no matter how many chronic diseases they have – stop going to their healthcare provider (or you!) because they can’t bear the sense of failure and judgement.  

Apathy? Lack of willpower? Lack of motivation?  No, the power of habits works against us.  Actually, so does willpower since it’s not a matter of powering through to comply or having an unlimited supply of willpower.

Michelle Segar’s research indicates that another reason for non-compliance is due to not knowing our ‘why’ for changing hardwired behaviors.  Without a meaningful ‘why’, compliance becomes a chore – exercise, healthy eating, taking disliked medicines, etc., are a chore, not a pleasure. Dr. Segar’s findings are that health reasons aren’t enough to sustain behavior change or ‘comply.’ 

Enhancing quality of life, well-being, pleasure, joy and centeredness are. We are hardwired to choose immediate gratification over long-term benefits. Plus it has been known for several decades that using fear and health risk tactics often have the opposite effect, for example, showing a smoker a picture of diseased lungs actually has been found to increase smoking.

So instead, co-create a wellness plan. Switch from counseling on health risks, to coaching your clients regarding what they want and their true ‘whys’ for accomplishing this. Coaching without lecturing, judging, or educating on health risks and reasons to comply.  Instead practice person-centered coaching. 

  • Consider the person’s ‘why’ and emphasize joy, well-being, pleasure and meaning.
  • Respect the person’s values and preferences without judgment. 
  • Allow and acknowledge the normalcy of ‘failure’. Is it failure? No. Instead, consider it as normal and part of practicing and learning?
  • Be there for the person and provide education when they are ready.
  • Help them identify barriers and ways to overcome the obstacles. Honor and support them since they truly know what is needed.
  • Take a holistic approach using a multidimensional model of wellness as well as whole person-centered care to address all the determining factors – not just dis-ease factors.

Doesn’t it make sense that we all want to be happy and experience joy, pleasure and well-being? This will hopefully motivate lasting behavior change – not another attempt at New Year Resolutions!  

Please let us know is you would like the references used for this article.

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