Are You as Healthy as You Tell Your Patients to Be?

Yesterday, I listened to a motivational interviewing expert present on smoking cessation. She was passionate about her career, an obvious recipe for success. While I’m not a smoker, the topic got me thinking about the advice we give to our patients. Am I practicing what I preach?

I, for one, have been guilty of tossing a pill bottle containing a few Amoxicillin tablets before completing the entire course, annoyed at the prospect of taking medication once I’m well. Frequently one to advise patients with sprains and strains to RICE their way to recovery, I push through injuries refusing to give my joints a break. I hate to take medication. Then, I’m annoyed when I don’t recover more quickly. I complain when I have a stuffy nose. I preach healthy eating and overall comply – but I did down half a large pizza at 9pm last evening. When I had my cholesterol checked, I forgot to fast not to mention ate an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s before my appointment in a moment of weakness. All in all, I’m pretty much the patient I hate to see. Gut check. 

Even as healthcare providers, we have weaknesses when it comes to taking care of ourselves. I’ve got the exercise and healthy diet part of life down (most of the time), but definitely fail when it comes to compliance with other recommendations like taking medications on time. Where do you fall short?

There are a few ways our personal shortcomings as nurse practitioners can affect our practices. First, outward signs of poor health may give patient’s pause when it comes to accepting our medical advice – a detriment to our efficacy. I’ll never forget the time I heard a patient call out an overweight physician after he instructed her to watch her diet and incorporate exercise into her daily routine. Studies show that healthcare providers don’t fare much better when it comes to health than the general population. One study, for example, found that 55 percent of nurses are overweight or obese. Another says that 51 percent of physicians need to lose weight as well. Perhaps we would prove more effective as a healthcare community if we collectively took our own advice. 

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On the upside, we can use our own personal health failures as a motivational tool, or one to help us formulate more practical plans of care for our patients. At the very least, our own shortcomings allow us as nurse practitioners to evaluate the practicality of our instructions. When I tell an injured athlete to avoid running on his sprained ankle for a week or so, I understand this is difficult for someone who’s active and can address the temptation up front. If I inform a patient as to the importance of compliance with a medication regimen, I can give a few tips for making this a more palatable experience understanding the task may be difficult. 

Authors of a study examining the relationship between physicians and overweight patients comment that overweight physicians are “less likely to categorize the obese in negative terms…so they are better able to build relationships with obese patients”. While over-sharing personal details is never a good idea as a nurse practitioner, drawing from your own health experience can augment the patient-provider relationship. I do occasionally find it helpful to share a few words about my own personal health struggles with patients. They can learn from this and also know that I understand the challenges they face. 

There’s certainly a balance to strike when it comes to personal health as nurse practitioners. Negligence in our own habits damages our credibility. Yet, going the other route, living up to textbook examples of wellness, is not practical for most of us either. Whether our health-related flaws are visible or not, as nurse practitioners we can use them to help shape us into better providers. 

How does your personal health status affect your patient interactions?


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