How to Fix Habitual Problems

Healthquake Thought leadership for the healthcare industry

by Michael N. Brown

Summary: “Good” habits (acceptable behaviors) can lead to a more productive medical practice while “bad” habits (unacceptable behaviors) can hurt everything from revenue to morale. Most people turn behavior into habit “subconsciously” and then don’t notice it anymore. Understanding how and why we create habits (good and bad), provides a path to change them for the better.

Why We Form Habits

If you Google the word “habit”, over 16 million hits show up. It’s a hot topic, especially when it comes to breaking “bad” habits (unacceptable behaviors).

We are wired to turn things into habit, “good” and “bad”.

Once a behavior becomes habitual, we stop thinking about it. It’s the reason that we usually travel to and from work the same way every day or have the same thing for breakfast. Habits can make life easier, but they can also make life more difficult. It’s the ones that make life difficult where the opportunity for improvement exists.

At work, we turn a lot of behaviors into habit. As soon as we turn them into habit, they go into our “subconscious”. We don’t think about what we are doing anymore, which is fine if the behavior is acceptable but is not OK when it isn’t.

This can lead to problems in a workplace, where we might be doing things “wrong” habitually and not even know it. This can build in an inefficiency and error factor.

How We Form Habits

The most common way we form habits is through repetition. We keep doing the same thing over and over until we don’t notice it any more. It can happen very quickly, especially if the repetitions are close together.

Consider the front desk personnel in a medical practice. Each time a patient comes in, they should check ID and the medical insurance card to make sure that everything is accurate before submitting to insurance. But, after a while, the same patient comes in and no one checks the information. They might not even ask if the patient has moved or changed insurance. It’s easy for this negligence to turn to habit.

That’s because, once we’ve done the same thing 3 times, we start to notice it a bit less. Each time we do the same thing, it’s less noticeable. It becomes expected behavior. By the time we’ve done it more than 18 times, we don’t notice it at all, and it has become habit. Based on this frequency, habits can form in less than a week. Studies suggest that as much as 45% of our daily actions are performed automatically – in other words, as habit.

However, in the case of the medical practice, even though the habit of skipping “patient verification” might make life easier on the front desk personnel, it doesn’t make life easier for the physician. That’s because one of the top reasons that an insurance claim is denied is incorrect patient information – even if it’s as simple as a missing middle initial on their name. This costs the practice time and money to resolve.

How We Form Bad Habits in the Workplace

No one sets out to create a bad habit.

Instead, they let the bad habit start by giving themselves permission to do something they shouldn’t do, such as when the front desk personnel stopped checking patient information. Once they’ve skipped the step more than 18 times, it’s predictable that they will keep skipping it unless someone steps in to help change things.

How to Fix Habitual Problems

To help your staff (or yourself), here are a few steps to help change “bad” habits…

  • Identify what’s not working
  • Have the other person agree that it’s important for them to change the habit
  • If you are the person trying to change your own bad habit, make it important to change
  • Focus on the conversation the person is having with themselves (or you are having with yourself) that allows them to continue the bad habit. Examples might be “It’s too hard to change”, “It’s more important that I get this done, even if it upsets others”, “I know I’m rude to people but that’s just who I am”, etc.
  • Help them change the conversation (“this is helping people” or “this is helping me”) and change the behavior. If necessary, add “punishing” consequences when the person refuses to change
  • Monitor the change and encourage the person (or yourself) for making progress on changing
  • Recognize that there may be occasional backsliding into the old habit. Nip it in the bud, refocus the behavior with the goal of having them perform the “changed” behavior more than 18 times so that it starts turning into a “good” habit
  • Praise the person for their success in changing the bad habit