What motivates people to improve their health and stay on the right track over time?
This question is on the mind of every practitioner, whether it’s a physician sending someone home with a wound care plan, a nutritionist giving dietary advice to help manage diabetes or a physical therapist providing exercises to get a frozen shoulder moving again. They’re thinking: “Will the patient do it?” To a great extent, the answer to this question determines how successful their treatment plans will be.
Some of this blog’s most popular posts have explored the issue of motivation because it is a major underpinning of patient engagement technology – will the patient use, and stick with, the technology that in turn helps them adhere to their care plans?
The subject of motivation usually starts with a discussion about goal-setting. This process, at least in the medical context, typically begins when the practitioner sets goals for the patient and provides a care plan that tells the patient what they need to do in order to get there. Some practitioners feel this should be motivation enough for a patient. In reality, they know it’s not.
So what is motivation? A great deal of research has gone into the subject, particularly with regard to behavior change. It is most often described as being either extrinsic (outside the individual) or intrinsic (inside the individual). With extrinsic motivation, we engage in a behavior or activity either to gain some sort of external reward or avoid a negative consequence. With intrinsic motivation, we engage in something because we find it personally fun or rewarding.
While these are the two areas most often discussed, there are other, deeper dimensions to motivation, including fear-based and development-based motivators – and these can be either extrinsic or intrinsic. Understanding the interplay among these different forms of motivation is an important element in successful health coaching and in the creation of successful, supportive technologies that assist people in reaching their health goals.
Fear-based motivation comes in two basic flavors: deficiency-based and threat-based. Deficiency-based motivations come from the sense you are lacking in some way. These can have an external, socio-cultural source (just watch any personal care product advertisement: you smell bad, your hair is the wrong color and your teeth aren’t nearly white enough) or an intrinsic source (e.g. internal pressure “shoulds,” self-imposed discipline or overcoming the deficiency of lost health). Threat-based motivations tap into fear at a deeper level. In the world of medicine, this might be a medical incident that serves as a wake-up call, and the threat of disability or death propels a person to make serious lifestyle changes.
Development-based motivation tends to come from the desire for personal growth or self-actualization. It can also be externally sourced (e.g. from positive peer health norms or positive environmental conditions like smoke-free public spaces) or intrinsic – from the satisfaction, pleasure or joy we derive from doing something.
Research has shown that while fear can be a great motivator for getting people started on something, the positive, development-based motivators tend to be more powerful in keeping people engaged and active in behavior change over the longer term.
I believe one of the reasons the Wellpepper patient engagement platform is so successful at driving patient engagement with care plans (70% engagement compared to an average of 20% engagement with portals) is because the Wellpepper team understands this complex motivation dynamic very well and they have incorporated some of the most successful elements from it into their platform. They call it the “3rd approach” and here’s why I think it works.
Wellpepper takes a very obvious extrinsic motivator – the practitioner’s care plan – and turns it into an application that incorporates both intrinsic and extrinsic development-based motivators that keep people engaged over time. There are many layers we could explore here, but we’ll start with a few of the big ones.
Setting aspirational goals: In addition to the functional goals set by the practitioner, Wellpepper provides the ability for patients to set their own personally meaningful, aspirational goals that can support and reinforce their motivation to heal. For example, someone recovering from a total joint replacement operation might set a future vision of wanting to hike to their favorite fishing spot with a grandchild. They can use Wellpepper to set interim goals that lead them toward that vision and can rate their own progress on a Likert scale.
Research in positive psychology has shown that this kind of personal vision and goal setting is highly successful at sustaining motivation over time. In this case the patient is more likely to complete their prescribed exercises because it leads them toward goals that are personally meaningful about their own healing and about doing something special with someone they love.
Personalized experience: Wellpepper also provides a personalized experience for the patient. Using the same joint replacement example, instead of getting a piece of paper with a series of exercise diagrams or a generic video, the practitioner can record the patient doing their own exercises. Seeing yourself, and hearing the personal comments of the physician or physical therapist as you do it, is not only easier to follow, it feels personal. And, as you begin to improve, when you watch yourself then and now, seeing your own progress can be very satisfying (a powerful development-based motivator).
Adaptive notification: Wellpepper’s patented adaptive notification system means the patient doesn’t get the same generic reminder every day – it changes the notification based on the patient’s progress and level of engagement, keeping the extrinsic motivator relevant, fresh and focused on personal development.
Tracking progress: By enabling people to track progress on their goals and sharing that information with their practitioners, patients tap into positive, extrinsic motivation. Also tracking progress on personal, aspirational goals helps people feel a greater sense of accomplishment and direction over their own developmental outcomes.
While motivation for any one individual can be elusive, the way Wellpepper weaves together the positive extrinsic and intrinsic development-based motivators may be the key to its success in helping patients stay motivated and helping practitioners answer the age-old question: “Will the patient do it?”
If they’re using Wellpepper, chances are, they will.
Jennifer Allen Newton is Wellpepper’s PR lead, and also a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach.