Empowering patients to take charge of their self-care

NSHA’s Behaviour Change Institute is exploring how clinicians can most effectively motivate patients to change their health behaviors.
NSHA’s Behaviour Change Institute is exploring how clinicians can most effectively motivate patients to change their health behaviors.

When it comes to chronic and complex illnesses, patients’ well-being stems from their ability to manage their own conditions over the long term. This requires a paradigm shift in which health professionals deliberately empower patients to take charge of their own health.

The old model of simply “following the doctor’s orders” to keep symptoms in check is clearly not working. As NSHA-Dalhousie behavioural psychologist and researcher Dr. Michael Vallis points out, only half of all prescribed medications in the world are taken as instructed (according to the World Health Organization).

“Empowerment and counselling are essential—as professionals, we can’t just ‘tell’ people what to do,” Dr. Vallis says. “First, we have to listen to them, make sure we understand their concerns, and then educate, advise, motivate and support them with a collaborative plan.”

Dr. Vallis and his colleagues at NSHA’s Behaviour Change Institute have been exploring how clinicians can most effectively motivate patients to change their health behaviors for more than a decade. From this work, they've developed educational approaches and assessment tools so that health professional training programs can teach the necessary communication skills and attitudes.

The researchers have been testing these with Dalhousie’s MD and family medicine residency programs and recently published their professional competencies training model in The Journal of Public Health.

At the same time, Dr. Vallis and Lynn Edwards, NSHA’s senior director of primary health care and chronic disease management, have secured an NSHA Translating Research Into Care (TRIC) grant to teach health care providers how to effectively screen for distress in patients with diabetes, starting with a pilot project in the Western Zone.

“Distress is very common in diabetes patients, ranging from disease-related distress that can be alleviated with better symptom management, to problems of living circumstances, to clinical depression,” Dr. Vallis notes. “It’s essential that providers know how to identify the type, degree and causes of distress, so they can refer patients to the appropriate supports and services.”