Clinical Emotion Empathy General Patient-Centered Care

Are you a cheerleader or a fan? Examining motivation in medicine

One of my favorite aspects of medicine is the relationship between health and lifestyle. I think of lifestyle as all of the “stuff” that affects patients outside of the exam room, including diet, exercise, family relationships, and living accommodations. All of these things affect the physical body in ways that are not always immediately apparent. In my most recent rotation, my preceptor and I treated several obese women complaining of low back and hip pain.  Thinking about the relationship about weight and musculoskeletal pain, I was surprised that my preceptor never made suggestions to patients about increasing their activity level or improving their diets. “I’ve realized that I’m not a cheerleader,” he told me, when I questioned him. “Trying to make people change only ends in heartache for me.”

It’s difficult to think about how patients can change their lifestyles without first thinking about their motivation for change. January happens to be the perfect time talk about motivation since this is the time of the year when people are making those pesky New Year’s resolutions.  W.D. Falk, a philosopher, writes about motivation as a direct product of one’s morals, and divides motivation into two subtypes: motivational internalism and motivational externalism. Motivational internalists believe that one’s motivation for doing something is directly linked to how the activity in question relates to one’s morals. In other words, if a patient is convinced that exercise is a good, morally correct thing to do, that moral conviction will be enough to motivate them to exercise. On the contrary, motivational externalists see no link between one’s moral convictions and their motivation. No matter how important or morally correct our patients think something is, their motivation for changing their lives has to come from some external source. A patient may believe that exercise is a morally good activity, but this belief alone is not enough to actually motivate them to exercise.

Acknowledging the existence of these two groups (and of course, many shades of grey in between!) will allow us to understand how we may best help our patients without using a “one size fits all” methodology. Some patients may able to find the impetus for change within themselves. These patients may articulate specific plans to achieve a goal or they may have independently improved their own wellbeing in the past. Other patients may need external motivating factors to make changes necessary to improve their health, most often in the form of a trusted confidant. We need to use our best clinical judgment to decide which approach would work better for each patient.

My preceptor’s comments also helped me recognize that in addition to understanding our patients’ capacities for change, we also need to think of our own capacities for motivating our patients. Some physicians are cheerleaders willing to stand on the front lines with their patients. These practitioners feel energized by helping people make positive changes and are willing to make an emotional investment in their patients’ lives. They help their patients set goals, consistently communicate with patients about their progress, and are willing to act as an emotional support whether or not the goals get met. Other physicians may not see themselves as cheerleaders for change. These physicians still have a responsibility to discuss aspects of their patients’ lifestyles that need improvement; however, their role might take form as a “fan” in the stands, rather than a cheerleader on the sidelines. They can still cheer on their patients and check in with them about their lifestyle changes, but may need to help patients find someone else in their healthcare team who is willing to do the ground work that it takes to help patients set and reach goals. In fact, I believe that it is far better to honestly acknowledge that you are a lousy cheerleader than to try to help your patient, only to become disheartened by their lack of progress and abandon them out of sheer frustration before their goal is met. It’s only through an honest acknowledgement of our own abilities and limitations that we can help our patients change their lifestyles for the better.


Photo credit: Jeff Turner