A New Approach to Patient Motivation

Friday’s keynote by Daniel Pink took a scientific look at what motivates people to really perform.  After Thursday’s session on inspiration I was looking for a new perspective and was not disappointed.

At a certain level, motivation is like gravity.  We all have an intuitive understanding of what it is and how it works, but we don’t always understand how the underlying mechanisms actually work.

Unfortunately, when it comes to motivation, our intuition often fails us.  For simple problems, the classic carrot and stick approach to shaping behavior does work to improve performance.  Unfortunately, when we try to apply those techniques to complex or conceptual problems, they typically make performance worse.

Pink suggests that the key to motivating for great performance and job satisfaction comes from three components:

  • Autonomy – control over your day, control over what you do and control over how you do it
  • Mastery –  the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose – dedication to a cause greater than oneself

He’s very persuasive in his arguments.  If you question his approach, I’d encourage you to read his book, Drive!

Now, Mr. Pink talked about all of this in terms of making your team effective.  I’d rather look at it in terms of motivating patients. Whether encouraging patients to take their medications, lose weight or manage their blood sugar, it’s difficult to get patients to follow doctors’ orders. Let’s look at how we might apply his model to these scenarios.

  • Autonomy – We all want more control in our lives.  So if you take advantage of even small opportunities to tailor a program, you will likely see improvements in adherence and satisfaction. When programs try to simplify by adding details and specifics while eliminating the need to make decisions, it actually ends up being counterproductive. This is because the only decision left to the patient is to choose not to comply. Instead, educate the patient about the items that they need to do and then let them set their own priorities .
  • Mastery – Rather than overwhelming patients with all aspects of a life-changing program at once, gradually bring in new elements and ways to see how they’re improving.  Add and refine the steps they’re taking and help them recognize and celebrate ongoing improvement.
  • Purpose – Perhaps the most critical component of this approach to motivation is to connect the healthy behaviors to a greater cause.  Patients are generally pretty unhappy with their ailments. But, in many cases, they’re further annoyed by the inconveniences of treatments and therapies.

What Pink really highlights with his approach to motivation is the notion of framing. Rather than encouraging one set of unpleasantness in the form of treatment as a path to eliminating the unpleasantness of the problem condition, patients need to understand what they gain in the form of tangible value.  It’s a classic feature/benefit split and we’re busy selling features today.

It’s a different piece of the puzzle as we look at the process of tackling health challenges.  Simply telling a patient what should be done often fails to lead patients to follow through.  Daniel Pink’s approach has potential as a framework for enabling sustainable health changes in the future.

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Ben Dillon

About Ben Dillon

Ben’s a big picture type of guy. He loves sharing new ideas in digital marketing, keeping a watchful eye on healthcare industry trends and seeing how it all intersects. A sought-after speaker, writer, blogger and current SHSMD board member, Ben’s an influential voice in healthcare marketing, helping organizations across the country embrace online strategies to engage health consumers. Combine his industry savvy with his background in software development and you can see why he’s also an important member of Geonetric’s software team, ensuring our content management system stays a step ahead of market needs. Ben holds a master’s degree in eBusiness and strategic management from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. When he’s not traveling and evangelizing, Ben enjoys cooking with his family and playing the Big House with the University of Michigan Alumni marching band.

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