I spend a lot of my time thinking about ways that you can overcome illness and injury, boost your health and happiness, and live a more vibrant and fulfilling life.
One of the conclusions I've come to is that behavior change and habit formation is one of the most powerful tools we have … and yet it is being largely ignored by medicine and healthcare.
Let's talk about that problem and some simple ways to solve it.
Build Habits, Not Factories
I think it's strange that we know that behavior changes like eating healthy, exercising more, reducing stress, and boosting creativity can improve your health (both in the short–term and long–term) and yet most doctors spend their time treating symptoms rather than teaching these behaviors.
I've written previously about how forming healthy habits not only prevents illness, but can also act as a method for treating it. For example, using exercise as a treatment for depression.
What if your doctor took this idea to heart and prescribed actions instead of medications?
Imagine how much time and energy doctors, pharmacists, and healthcare providers spend researching drugs, prescribing medications, and making sure that new drugs don't conflict with the ones you're currently taking. Compare that to how much time your doctor spends teaching you how to optimize your environment at home and at work to build healthy habits. (Has any doctor ever done this?)
It's pretty clear that the medical system cares more about building pharmaceutical factories than building good habits.
What if, instead of dishing out pills to treat symptoms, healthcare professionals spent their time teaching patients how to act healthy? I've written about ways to do this. For example, changing the color of your plate to make it easier to eat more vegetables or using the phrase “I don't” to make sure that you resist temptation and actually stick to your health goals for the long–term.
These ideas are just two examples out of hundreds of simple tactics that can be used to make behavior change easier. These ideas come from the fields of behavioral psychology, consumer research, and elsewhere (and I'm doing my best to track down as many as possible).
Teaching Actions Instead of Prescribing Pills
There is a shocking amount of unnecessary treatment going on in healthcare.
As reported in this New York Times article, orthopedic surgeons took an anonymous survey and admitted that 24% of the tests they ordered were medically unnecessary. That article also shared that the rate of doctor's visits that lead to more than 5 medications being prescribed has more than tripled in the last 5 years.
Some experts believe that doctors feel pressured to do “something” for patients and so they end up ordering drugs and procedures that won't hurt them, but that don't really help either. When I hear about stories like this, I feel like plucking my eyeballs out with a fork. Is this really the best we can do? Instead of wasting time and money on unnecessary procedures, why not spend that time teaching people how to implement lifestyle changes?
Regardless of the motivation behind these actions, the evidence is pretty clear. Our medical system is spending a lot of time and money treating symptoms and masking illnesses, and very little time teaching people how to change their behaviors and build better habits.
Integrative Medicine: It Works, So Use It
All of this is not to say that surgery or prescription drugs or medical treatment doesn't work. Not only do those methods work, they save many lives. But it's also true that in many cases, these treatments don't work any better than behavior change. (Not to mention that behavior change is less expensive and more empowering over the long–term.)
And this is why I'm calling for more integrative medicine — a combination of the best of scientifically backed ideas from all fields. For many illnesses, research has already shown that behavior change leads to equivalent or better outcomes than medication. Imagine the long-term impact it could have (both by lowering costs and improving patient outcomes) if doctor's spent time educating patients on how to create a healthier environment and stick to behavior changes?
As with most things in life, the right answer is probably a balance of both sides. For example, imagine prescribing a medication for the first 12 weeks (to provide short-term results) while also teaching the patient how to change their behavior, optimize their environment, and build healthier habits over that timespan (to provide long-term results).
It sounds logical, but right now I'm afraid that our system is spending far too much time and money on medications and treatments, while essentially ignoring the power of behavior change. Combining the two can lead to better outcomes and lower costs — everyone wins.
We have science and research that proves the efficacy of behavior change and we have a growing body of psychological tools that make these changes easier to achieve. And yet, the vast majority of doctors continue to spend their time telling people to take prescriptions instead of teaching people how to take action.
I think it's time to set a higher standard in health and medicine by using integrative medicine to teach scientifically proven behavior changes rather than defaulting to a prescription because “we're busy and it's easier” or ordering another test to appease the patient.
Behavior change works, so why aren't doctors teaching it to their patients?
P.S. If you want more practical ideas for how to build new habits (and break bad ones), check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.