From Resolutions to Results: Strategies for Helping Patients Reach Their Health Goals

Patrice Harris, MD, Chair, AMA Board of Trustees, discusses how clinicians can help patients stay on track and keep their New Year's Resolutions.

At the end of 2017, the American Medical Association (AMA) released seven health recommendations for New Year’s Resolutions that patients can implement “for a healthier new year.”1

  • Limit your consumption of beverages with added sugar
  • Know your risk for type 2 diabetes
  • Be more physically active
  • Reduce your intake of processed food and added sodium
  • If consuming alcohol, do so in moderation as defined by the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans
  • Talk with your doctor about tobacco use and quit
  • Declare your home and car smoke free to eliminate exposure to second-hand smoke

Despite the most well-intended New Year’s Resolutions, only 77% of individuals maintain their pledges beyond one week, and only 19% continue for two years.2 Physicians play a critical role in boosting their patients’ chances for success in adhering to these recommendations. To assist patients in implementing successful strategies for doing so, MPR interviewed Patrice Harris, MD, Chair, AMA Board of Trustees.

What is the role of physicians in helping patients implement these recommendations in 2017?

These tips were meant as a stimulus and starting point for conversations that should happen between physicians and patients. Certainly, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy or approach. Physicians know their patients best and that relationship helps them to know the optimal time and way to broach these subjects.

What can physicians do to motivate patients to adhere to the recommendations?

Changing behavior is not always easy. That is a universal concept that applies on many levels. But I think the basic tenet is to meet patients where they are and understand each patient’s own internal and external motivators.

Talking with patients can help physicians appreciate and understand these motivators. For example, finding out about a special event coming up in the patient’s life might be an opening to discuss weight loss, since many people would like to lose weight prior to a special event. I am a forensic and child psychiatrist who sees children, adolescents, and adults. I have found that my adult patients are often motivated by their children to engage in behavioral changes. For example, sometimes children would like their parents to quit smoking. And sometimes parents would like a healthier home environment for their children.

Even motivated patients often have difficulty with adherence. How can physicians help them stay on track?

I think it is important to work in a collaborative spirit and also to set realistic expectations. Having smaller goals that are easier to attain are more realistic than having larger goals. For example, if a patient needs to lose 60 pounds, it may be easier to achieve that goal by breaking it into smaller chunks. “This month I will lose five pounds and next month I will lose another five pounds.” Patients who have success with the first steps find these early wins encouraging and are more likely to continue working toward their goals. But a 60-pound goal can be overwhelming and discouraging, and patients are less likely to follow through.