More Americans are overweight and out of shape than ever before. Their sedentary, high-calorie lifestyles are causing an epidemic of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and degenerative arthritis among other preventable conditions. If those aren’t bad enough, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle also raise the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, and other common forms of cancer.
Doctors all across the nation are struggling to treat these lifestyle-induced conditions with new and advanced medicines. Medical care helps a little, but if the lifestyle doesn’t change, the illnesses get worse. So doctors try to help there too, advising their patients to: “Lose some weight. Start working out. Eat fewer calories. Stop smoking.” Indeed, doctors are expected to help their patients live a healthy life.
Why is that? Physicians aren’t trained to help patients change their behavior. And they shouldn’t be. In actual practice most doctors need three or more years of residency after four years of medical school just to be great at treating diseases. Then they must be continuous learners to keep up with the ever-changing field of medicine. It’s tough to make sure that you’re treating patients to the most current and best recommendations. So doctors are working hard just to give the right treatments, and we want them to be behavior change experts too? Forget about it.
If you’re a patient, your unhealthy lifestyle is not a medical problem. It’s a behavior problem. If you’re a doctor reading this, I recommend you just be the medical expert. Stick to diagnosis and treatment. Regarding helping your patients change their lifestyles, I’m letting you off the hook. Explain to your patients that their lifestyle is causing their illnesses and you recommend they live differently. Once. Then just do the prescribing.
Well then you ask, “Who will help patients change?” I recommend life coaches, also called personal coaches. These are professionals dedicated solely to enabling individuals change behavior to achieve their goals. Coaches help clients achieve greater focus, see new possibilities, identify methods to change, and adopt new behaviors. It works. It’s what coaches do.
Now, for you patients – coaches are prepared and ready to help you with your lifestyle goals in a way that doctors are not. I know because I am both a doctor and a coach. Expect your doctor to help you with your medical problems, not your lifestyle problems. As a doctor, I prescribe a coach.
Peter J. Weiss is an internal medicine physician and former health plan CEO. He is author of More Health Less Care and can be reached at More Health, Less Care: Building America’s Wellness System.
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