How to Motivate Your Patients to Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Probably one of the hardest thing for any nurse is figuring out how to motivate patients to make healthier choices. Nurses show up to work with the best of intentions. The nurse’s primary goal is to help their patient get better so that they can transition on to the next level of care. Yet far too often, the nurse leaves work with feelings of futility. 

As we know, healthcare becomes more complex by the day. Patients live longer, and often, with more chronic illnesses than before. Systems in healthcare change rapidly and the nurse is asked to do more for the patient, often with less resources, time, or money.

We, as nurses, want our patients lives to improve. The nurse reports to work hoping to make a difference. We want the patient in front of us to get better and move on to a healthier life. Yet at times, this is difficult if not nearly impossible to do. Why all of the struggle? And more importantly, what can the nurse do to motivate patients to make healthier choices?

Here Are 3 Ways to Motivate Patients to Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

1) Use Business 101. As a nurse who also owns a business, I have learned a lot about marketing and sales. Two areas of expertise that are likely not taught in nursing school. However, I believe that these skills can come in handy and be of great value to the nurse who is looking to motivate their patient to choose health. What do we as the nurse likely do? We give patients the features. What do I mean by this? Here’s an example:

Let’s say your patient is starting a new medication that will decrease their blood pressure. As the nurse, we likely educate them on the name of the medication, the time to take the medication, what foods to mix or not mix the pills with, and how the medication will impact their blood pressure. Let’s be honest- does the patient monitor their blood pressure? Not likely. Do they even know what those numbers mean? Most often they do not. You have just described the features of a medication to a patient. Not very practical. Instead you want to connect to the benefits.

Business 101 will teach you to outline the benefits, not the features, to the person you are trying to motivate. In business, we use marketing techniques that outline benefits to sell to clients. Similarly in nursing, we can use these techniques to motivate the patient. We need to outline the benefits of the medication to the patient, not the features. For example, telling them that taking their medication will increase their energy so that they can play with their grandchildren. Which leads me to strategy number two…

2) Connect to Their “Big Why”. If we can get to understand the patient’s motivation for being well, then we can connect them to that. This is another concept I have learned by studying business techniques. My business coach often talks to me about my “big money why”. Why am I in business, even though it is hard work? What do I show up for every day, even if I am not always making money? How come I want to be a nurse business owner, despite the fact that it can be an emotional roller coaster?

With patients, we need to understand what motivates them to be well. Why would they want to get out of the hospital bed? What event is coming up that is important for them to attend? How can we tap into the things that they enjoy doing, the people they love being around, or the passions they have outside of healthcare that we can connect to when we do our nursing education or teaching?

If we can learn more about what is important to the patient, we can use these talking points as we motivate them to make healthier choices. And guess what? These are the things we speak to in number one above, when we outline the benefits to those tasks we want patients to do.

3) Role Model the Behavior. The old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do” is extremely ineffective. I see this with children all of the time. My niece is told not to say a specific word, however she hears her parents saying it all of the time. It is no surprise then when my niece goes and blurts that word out at a large family gathering, embarrassing her parents and everyone else in the room!

Patients certainly can hear what is coming out of our mouths, but they are human beings just like we are. They have judgments and opinions just like we do. If they hear the nurse talk about respiratory illness, behavior modification to quit smoking, and increasing exercise for healthy lungs- and then they leave the hospital and see that very nurse sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette, guess what they are going to do? You got it. Take everything they just heard from that nurse and judge it as baloney.

Now, I realize that we as nurses are human as well. And we have vices, bad habits, and things we are working on in terms of our own well-being. However, we need to realize that patients are watching our every move. And the more we can role model the behavior we are looking to support them in, the more motivated they will be to choose a healthier lifestyle. It just makes sense!

Okay, let’s hear from you. What did we miss? What tip would you add to help a nurse motivate their patient to be healthier? Be sure to Tweet me @ElizabethScala to let me know. Thanks for reading and feel free to share with a colleague!

Elizabeth Scala

Keynote speaker and bestselling author, Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, partners with hospitals, nursing schools, and nurse associations to transform the field of nursing from the inside out. As the host of the Nurse’s Week ‘Art of Nursing’ program, Elizabeth guides nurses and nursing students to a change in perspective, helping them make the inner shift needed to better maneuver the sometimes challenging realities of being a caregiver.Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is also a certified coach and Reiki Master Teacher. Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and a playful pit bull.