Thoughts on Helping 1: What Do People Need?

Like most of us in the healthcare field, I’m trying to help people to be well – to move from illness to health, and from health to vitality. Early in my career, as a practicing internist and infectious disease specialist it was pretty easy for me to see that I was doing something useful. Sick people recovered from their illnesses. Not all of them of course, but each week brought many positive outcomes. Patients walking out of the hospital after being near death from meningitis a few days earlier; immune systems improving with anti-viral treatments for HIV; healing of previously infected bones and joints – it was rewarding work. Today I have a different calling.

Now I see that most healthcare in our country is provided in treatment of lifestyle diseases and their complications. Often care represents an emergency rescue that doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Cardiac stents do not cure coronary artery disease. Stenting is a temporizing measure to gain time and prevent heart attacks, meanwhile the disease progresses.   Sadly, most people with lifestyle-induced illnesses don’t change their lifestyle. I want to do something about that.

In the last six years, I’ve developed a passion for helping people to change for the better. My goal is to help them take control of their lives and lifestyles to be well. People can lose the weight – and the diabetes. We all can be better emotionally, spiritually and physically. It is possible. So I’ve written books, given speeches, held workshops, offered personal coaching, and started this blog. I’m trying to make a difference for individuals’ health far upstream from the need for healthcare.

Frankly, it doesn’t appear to be working. It seems there are precious few individuals for whom I have made a difference through these efforts. Borrowing a term from my financial colleagues, this can be considered a low margin business – talk to a hundred to help a few. Naturally I’m looking to do better. Perhaps I can change my message or adjust my delivery to improve the results. Or maybe I can be more selective with the audience, targeting those who are likely to be the most receptive.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help people. What is it that people actually need to change for the better? What’s the missing ingredient that, if provided, will allow them to be different? There is no simple answer, and I’d like to explore some of my thoughts, and hopefully yours, over a series of posts on the topic. (Hence the number 1 in today’s title)

My initial thought is “it’s complicated.” All of us are different from one another, and any particular individual has arrived at their current state of health through a complex set of external circumstances and personal behaviors. Many arrive bewildered thinking, “How did I get here?” No one ever sits down and makes a life plan to be severely overweight, sedentary, chronically emotionally stressed, and to have serious medical problems by middle age. Yet that’s exactly what happens to a lot of us.

I also believe that, in general, people are doing the best they can with what they have to navigate life’s journey. They are choosing the behaviors that work for them in some sense, but cause ill health in the long run. If it’s true that they are doing the best they can with what they have, it implies that they need to have something else to get better. What is it that we can give them?

Perhaps it’s a new and inspiring vision. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, maybe they have a limited and limiting understanding of reality and what’s possible. If only we could help them see. Or perhaps it’s support and encouragement. Maybe they’re trying and failing because they are a bit short of internal strength. Could just a little external support from close friends help put them over the top?

Sometimes tangible external resources may be indicated. The woman (or man) in an abusive relationship may require a safe place to live in order for her to escape the abuser and build a better life. Providing that safe home can make all the difference in her life. People living in inner city “food deserts” could use new local sources for healthy foods.

In general, I think it’s easier to focus on tangible external resources, and so society tends to do that more. Yes, in the examples immediately above, I am for it, but we’ve gone way past that in our approach to more ordinary circumstances. Does the average employee really need their employer to provide free stuff (for example, a no-cost fitness center membership) to be well? Why won’t people who spend money on movies, sports and cable TV, spend a similar amount on books, tapes and activities to enhance their own health? And why do we feel the need to use external motivation strategies, such as giving employees monetary rewards for wellness behaviors?

Talking about an individuals internal resources, “character,” is a much more difficult (and politically sensitive) conversation. Yet we all know that character trumps external circumstances. How do we give people what they need internally – vision, inspiration, determination, patience, persistence, strength, knowledge, and understanding? Is that even possible? Can you give someone character?  Can you give internal motivation?

It’s a rhetorical question of course, but the answer is “no.” You can’t give anyone a better character, but you can help their development along the way. Inspiring, mentoring, teaching, encouraging, and just loving people are ways to foster their personal growth. So is being honest with them about their unproductive and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.

In my estimation, all wellness programs ultimately come down to developing character, which is a noble and holy cause. I’m just not sure how to best go about it. What do you think?

Other posts in this series:
Thoughts on Helping 2: Who Wants To Be Well?
Thoughts on Helping 3: Like Helps Like


  1. David Goodridge says:

    Character change, true character change for the good can only come form God, for “all that’s good and perfect” comes from Him” Too many of us (myself included) try to accomplish great things on our own, and even though we may meet a measure of worldly success and earthly acclaim, there is a celestial cap that allows us to go only thus far and no further.
    Personally, I believe that the quest is a noble and good. If you were aiming for something that boosts yourself, it would be another matter. I do believe that you are headed in the right direction and even this quest, is building one’s character itself. If it in His will, it will be done.