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Advice for changing health behavior: “Think like a designer”


 When listening to our latest 1:2:1 podcast, featuring a conversation with Kyra Bobinet, MD, MPH, two things jumped out at me. First, Bobinet, an expert in design thinking and behavioral change who says she "leads by my curiosity," has a very cool personal story, and second: We shouldn't be so hard on ourselves when we struggle to make positive health changes. In short, it's not us - it's a design flaw.

The interests of Bobinet, CEO and founder of a design firm using neuroscience to change behavior, can be traced back to medical school, when she was exposed to a program that taught health education in juvenile hall. "I became fascinated by the behavioral patterns of gang members who had violent pasts and came in and out of the system," she says. These gang members vowed to stay out of jail when they were released but yet "two days later they were immersed" in their old lives and back in trouble. "Why is that happening? And how is that different than me saying I don’t want to eat french fries during Lent but then doing so the second day?" she wonders aloud.

Not long after, an experience with a patient wound up changing the trajectory of her career. During residency she saw a man with gout who had taken meth just three days prior. Bobinet had only ten minutes in clinic with him, and he only mentioned the drug use during the tail end of their conversation, before she had a chance to probe into it. "He changed my life," she says. "I was so interested in the behavior that led to the medical condition – I [realized I] didn’t want to write prescriptions for the condition anymore, I wanted to focus on the behavior." She went on to public health school from there.

In the podcast, Bobinet, who also teaches courses on patient engagement and empowerment in the Stanford AIM Lab with Larry Chu, MD, goes on to talk a lot more about behavior and what she has learned through extensive research of patients and caregivers. She talks about her new book, Well Designed Life, which lays the groundwork for those looking to design the changes they want to see in their life, and she offers more advice and words of encouragement for people who are struggling to, say, stay on a diet or quit smoking. "Think like a designer," she says. Your failed attempt at making positive change "was just a version, just a protoptype… That was something that didn’t work – but it’s not you, it’s the design... And you have to redesign what will grab your attention now."

Previously: Designing behavior for better health

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