Though significant improvements to health can be achieved through policy change (making healthier choices the default option) and through the smart use of behavioral economic principles (like rewards and incentives), many health promotion programs suffer from an inherent bias: they primarily help only those who are ready to help themselves. People who are “pre-contemplative” and not yet considering behavior change are overlooked.
This is a troublesome situation. Any program or organization committed to health should make a conscious effort to “recommit to serving the most vulnerable” people, as Project Renewal recently did. By constantly striving to reach the toughest and most recalcitrant of cases, we as a society will avoid the complacency and poundage associated with simply “cream-skimming.”
How can we realize this goal? I am a firm believer in the power of role models to enact positive change at all levels. Recognizing the importance of role models is not new; there are many instances of this, such as celebrities and athletes in the popular media, sponsors in support groups, and the people in one’s own social network. Therefore, to promote healthier behaviors in even the most unmotivated of cases, we must begin by better leveraging social bonds.
An inexpensive and effective place to begin could be via public health and medical professionals, who often work to nudge others towards positive behavior change. However, instead of just telling people what to do, we stand a better chance at sparking lasting change by modeling the behaviors we seek. Through first-hand knowledge of sustained behavior change and its challenges, we can use our own experience not only to catalyze others’ self-efficacy but also be more empathetic when struggles are encountered. At a minimum, this will require support from health professionals’ own employers and supervisors to allow for exercise, better diet, adequate sleep, and stress reduction (features which are notoriously absent from hospital work environments, for example, but could improve patient-physician relationships and quality of care).
To reach those who aren’t yet ready to help themselves, we need to stop saying “Trust me: I’m a doctor” and start saying “Follow me: I’m a role model.”