Getting your patients to follow a healthcare protocol can be tricky, especially when it involves helping them unlearn habits instilled by Western medicine.
We spoke with Dr. Pescatore, best-selling author and "one of the most sought-after natural physicians in the country," and he shared some tips for improving patient compliance rates from the moment you begin working together:
Capitalize on Day-One Motivation
"Patients are at their most motivated the day they walk into your office," says Dr. Pescatore, "and then they'll get less motivated over time, especially as they start feeling better."
It's important to recognize that a patient is coming to you with an understanding of functional medicine that's not as informed as yours. Don't allow empathy and expertise to be mutually exclusive.
Listen to what the patient is telling you
Many patients will come to you with multiple problems they'd like to address with functional medicine.
They might have arthritis, chronic indigestion, and regular migraines, but your initial blood work might discover a host of other issues that should be addressed. It's great that you've uncovered other areas you can work on with your patient, but it's important to address the pain that brought them to your office in the first place.
Give them something tangible
Patients are familiar with Western medicine practices. They expect to walk away from an appointment with a diagnosis and a prescription. You should run blood tests to get a holistic view of the state of your patient's health, but you also have to provide a new patient with a takeaway that has an immediate impact on their daily well-being. What symptoms are they presenting now that you can treat without information from their blood work?
Demonstrate how their symptoms have improved
If you're able to help your patient on day one, you'll have an easier time keeping them engaged.
See them again sooner rather than later, and note how their progress with their new health regimen. If they've stuck to your instructions, show them how this change in behavior, diet, or the addition of supplements has alleviated symptoms they had before their first visit.
Connecting the dots between that initial, motivating pain and the positive results of your solution will turn new patients into loyal ones.
Remind patients that functional medicine is an ongoing process
For functional medicine to work, patient compliance is critical. Unlike Western medicine, where a treatment allows a patient to continue with the behavior that led to their illness, functional medicine aims to treat the core issues underlying symptoms.
This can be off-putting for new patients, even if they've had some experience with naturopathy in the past, so it's important to reinforce that good health comes from following the treatment plan.
Don't overwhelm them with supplements
Another side effect of prescription drug culture is a tendency for patients to look for shortcuts to good health in the form of pills and supplements (as opposed to diet and lifestyle changes). Supplements are an important part of functional medicine, but a patient's intentions can sometimes outweigh their self-discipline.
It’s critical to set realistic expectations around the function that supplements have on the body and the timeframe in which change takes place. Making underlying physiologic change takes time. It took a long period of time to develop the issue and might take even longer to resolve it. Understanding that idea will help the patient avoid frustration or disappointment in lieu of immediate results.
Patients are accustomed to standard medical approaches that apply a medication to address a specific symptom. Supplements nourish and build the body’s systems in in the hope of ameliorating symptoms. The mechanisms are inherently different and require more time to achieve relief from symptoms. Building a system up and nourishing it takes time while medications typically work faster. Explaining this process will give you the time and space to implement the protocol without compromising compliance.
Tips for keeping the patient engaged and committed to getting well
There are many strategies for encouraging patients to stay committed to your protocol:
"The patient will always tell you what's wrong with them if you listen," says Dr. Pescatore. Talk to them about your diagnosis. Let them choose what to address first. You can instill in your patient a sense of ownership over their treatment, which can be motivating on its own.
Tackle one issue at a time
After you've established your patient's top priorities, decide which one to tackle first. By focusing on one treatment for one issue, you make it easier for a patient to integrate functional medicine into their everyday routines and demands.
Get a team involved
You've probably heard the term "accountability buddy." There's a reason for that: most people do better with a support system. Because functional medicine involves lifestyle changes as well as the introduction of supplements, it’s helpful to include people who play an important role in your patient's life, such as a spouse, child, or sibling.
Being healthy in the United States can be challenging. Our culture provides no shortage of obstacles for patients attempting to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Opportunities to choose unhealthy foods are everywhere, so it's important to have support from friends and family.
Ask your patient to keep a food diary
"Diet is the key to everything," says Dr. Pescatore. While it might be tempting to tackle low-hanging fruit that can be addressed with a daily supplement, Dr. Pescatore suggests asking new patients to keep a food diary to help keep them engaged.
Schedule regular return visits
Dr. Pescatore reaches out one-on-one to new patients who are less motivated than the average patient. He'll have them return to the office more often. This ensures they have someone holding them accountable to their treatment plan. It's easy for patients to just take some supplements and wait for the healing to begin. Involve yourself in your patients’ lives (and if they resist this, they might not be the best patient for you). Check in with them, let them know you are there to support them through this transformative process. By demonstrating your empathy and conveying your sincere desire to help them, compliance will come more easily to your new patients.
If you listen to your patients, instead of listening for what you want to hear or what sounds familiar, you'll be able to provide them with a well-tailored plan that will make compliance easier. In the U.S., barriers to adopting functional medicine can drain patients of motivation. Naturopathy is like a muscle your patient has never had an opportunity to use before. Overexertion may cause them to jump ship. Ease patients into treatment plans. Let them organically integrate functional medicine as you treat one issue at a time.