Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Role of Will Power in Medical Care

I've made a belated New Year's resolution - to read "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength" - a book about how to make effective resolutions. I made my resolution while reading an article about it in a recent New York Times.

The basic ideas aren't rocket science. But they're practical, well articulated, and grounded in research:
  1. Set a single clear goal - not an overwhelming program of total self-modification all at once.
  2. Apply a strategic plan. The classic example is Odysseus. When he wanted to hear the sirens sing but to resist their charms he didn't just rely on will power - he had himself tied to the mast, and had his sailors put wax in their ears so they (a) could hear the sirens and (b) couldn't hear his demand to have the ropes taken off.
  3. Develop a support team. Years ago a patient of mine described, with pleasure, how when he whined about stress in his AA group the group chanted, in unison, but with affection - "Tough Shit! Don't Drink!" Now, with the burgeoning of web supports, we can supplement the support process with social networking tools.
  4. Monitor progress. Over the years there's been debate, for example, as to whether checking weight daily discourages would-be reducers, but evidence now suggests that for most people, regular feedback helps.
  5. Don't overreact to lapses. The quality improvement mantra - "every defect is a treasure" - applies to managing ourselves. Falling off the wagon from time to time is almost inevitable. The key is to (a) learn what we can from the episode and (b) not interpret a lapse as a global defeat.
  6. One day/hour/minute at a time. Years ago I asked a substance abuse counsellor colleague to join me and a patient who was struggling with alcoholism. She pointed out that if focusing on a day was too much, changing the time scale to "one hour at a time" or even "one minute at a time" could sometimes strengthen our capacity for control.
  7. Give frequent rewards. Just focusing on control can be grim and joyless. Most of us need pleasurable payoffs for our efforts as well. The NYT article described a scale that will automatically make donations to a charity if we're meeting our weight target!
I applied most of these precepts in my work with patients suffering from chronic psychiatric conditions, but in a less systematic way than I would if I were starting over. The biggest change for patients and clinicians is the availability of all kinds of web-based tools that can supplement these ancient psychological insights. Scales can track and graph our weight. Pedometers count our steps. Social networking applications orchestrate our support group, supplement it when it needs augmentation, or replaces it altogether with responses we can design.

I ended my clinical practice four years ago, but at the turn of the year I received a series of communications from former patients. One asked me to buff up a voice mail message that has been a useful booster shot over time. Another asked for guidance about significant health-relevant New Year's resolutions. A third simply wanted to report on the status of the major areas we'd worked on for many years.

Many years ago, a patient whose well-being required strengthened assertiveness had identified the second serve in tennis as a valuable monitoring tool. This person's skills were excellent, but fear of double faulting led to a bloopy second serve. Some time after we ended treatment I was happy to receive a three word message: "Second serve humming!"

To care for patients with chronic conditions, we clinicians need to orchestrate the balance of patient self-management and the support and guidance we provide. This is a fascinating aspect of the art of medicine. It touches on the eternal philosophical conundrum of free will vs determinism. When we get the balance right it's usually clear and always satisfying.

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