One of the most common questions we get from health care providers is,  “What can I say to my patients who don’t follow my medical advice (such as doing home exercise programs or following medication and diet regimens)?

The methods providers generally use to motivate patients include giving advice, directing, or persuading with logic. Unfortunately research informs us that information alone does not automatically motivate patients to action. Behavior is more likely to be shifted by engaging patients’ emotions and values.

Although there is not just one magic bullet that inspires patients to take more responsibility in their health care, there is one piece of information you must know – what your patients really want. With the right questions, your patients can recognize the discrepancy between their current behavior and the deeper values they hold. Then patients are likely to get moving on their own behalf.

So begin by sincerely asking this first question:

What will get to happen for you, once you ________ (feel better, have healed, are experiencing relief, etc.)?

One of our trainees asked this question of a patient with back pain who was doing very little between sessions to improve her condition. The patient replied, “I will get to connect with my friends again.”

The provider then asked the follow up question –

What’s important to you about connecting with your friends (their goal)?

The patient lit up and said,  “I love having fun.”

Once the provider understood what motivated his patient, he could incorporate connecting and having fun into the treatment process as well as link doing the home exercise program with making progress toward her deeper values.

After this interchange, the provider told our team that not only did his patient get actively involved in exercising and improve, but that he himself enjoyed the treatment process more.

So consider your current patient case load and ask yourself, “Do I know what each of my patients really want?”


Leventhal, H (1971) Fear appeals and persuasion: The differentiation of a motivational construct. American Journal of Public Health, 61, 1208-1224.

Rokeach, M. (1973) The Nature of Human Values. New York: Free press.

About Us and Patient Success Systems

John Woolf, PT, Beth Haggerty, LCSW and Terry Hickey, MS are the creators of Patient Success Systems. Together, we have developed a breakthrough, step-by-step approach designed to help health care practitioners develop psychologically-informed practices to improve patient compliance, dramatically lower no-show rates and improve overall patient outcomes.

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