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How the power of imagery can inspire you to live well

A new study out of Sweden uses a psychological quirk to trigger positive lifestyle change

MRI scan of cerebral brain vessels

Doctors and health scientists have sorted out the major lifestyle questions about health. Stay active and challenge your muscles. Eat real food, mostly plants. Don’t smoke. Take your medication. Even so, coronary heart disease remains the leading cause of death in most countries.

That’s because people aren’t living the healthy lifestyles prescribed by the medical community. For some reason, they’re apt to forget a doctor’s advice as soon as they leave the office.

Now, a recent study published in The Lancet suggests one way that you, as a patient, can inspire yourself to follow a healthy lifestyle long after you’ve left the doctor’s office.

To prompt unhealthy patients to change, the study suggests that doctors should provide them with a picture. An image that illustrates the precarious state of their health.

Doctors prompted patients with a scan, and risk decreased

The study happened in Sweden and focused on an ultrasound scan of the carotid artery, called a carotid intima media thickness test. The artery supplies blood to the brain and parts of the head. The scan is intended to assess plaque in the blood vessel. How blocked it is, in other words. In the study, 3,532 middle-aged people underwent the scan.

After, one group received the usual advice from doctors. Another group received the same advice, plus something to take home: A picture. One that showed the amount of plaque the patient had in his or her artery, alongside a coloured gauge. Green meant “You have no plaque.” Red meant the opposite—plaque, and therefore, an increased risk of stroke and other problems.

Researchers followed up with the two groups a year later. And it seems that single picture had quite a lot of power. Results indicated that those who received the standard intervention, doctor’s words, had not changed their behaviour. Their cardiovascular disease risk actually increased. Things were different for the ones who had been sent off with the image. Their risk had decreased.

The results suggest that the patients were more likely to remember the picture, compared to a few words from a doctor, and thus, were more likely to stay away from highly processed fried foods, and stay active. To make better health decisions.

The power of a picture, like the Medcan Health Map

What’s interesting about the Lancet study is that the pictures triggered such a positive impact. The research reflects something I’ve noticed at our own clinic, which focuses on prevention and wellness. As the clinic’s chief medical officer, one of my duties involves managing the patient-physician interaction that occurs during the Annual Health Assessment.

We provide our patients with a document called a Health Map—a one-page readout that provides test results in an easy-to-understand manner. Results are colour coded, with red indicating “cause for concern,” and green, “doing well.” We also provide several percentile scores—for example, an overall medical score, which reflects blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and other factors.

Our clients tell us they like having a Health Map to consult after their assessment. In a survey conducted six months after their visit, some 62% said the Health Map influenced changes in their health behaviour, with 43% reporting diet improvements, and 37% exercising more frequently.

How to use imagery to reach your health goals

Many physicians don’t provide a Health Map, however. But anyone can all employ the power of image to inspire healthier behaviour. Here are three ways I’d suggest:

  1. If the results of a medical test suggest you need to change your lifestyle, ask your doctor for the printout. Then copy it, and fix the printout in places where you’re forced to see it—such as the bathroom mirror, the front of your fridge, or the snack cupboard.
  2. Harnessing the power of imagery is even easier if the troubling test result is some sort of a scan. Ask your doctor for a copy of the scan. Say it’s an ultrasound of your carotid artery that shows atherosclerosis. Get the printout of the scan, and then post that all around your house.
  3. Finally, be creative. Some test results don’t speak to easy summarizing in image form. Bone densitometry, an X-ray that assesses the strength of your skeleton, simply shows an image of a bone that would be hard for civilians to interpret. If the results show that you require more calcium, consider employing a more powerful image, like an X-ray of a broken femur. Keep it simple, personal and memorable. Whatever works!

Science suggests that images can resonate with human beings. Pictures are so powerful, they can stay with us and inspire positive behavioural change long after we’ve forgotten a conversation with a doctor. Want to pursue a healthier lifestyle? Be creative and use the power of imagery!

Dr. James Aw is the chief medical officer at Medcan.

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