Habit v. Habituation

By Anny Goldman, Adherence Manager at Care for Life, admin of “Adherence to medical treatment & healthy lifestyle” Facebook page

Although habit and habituation have a similar sound to them, they have a whole different meaning. Habituation refers to a decrease in response to a stimulus. Take for example your partner that calls you urgently for what they consider important or urgent for them, but it turns out to be something meaningless or just plain silly to you. When this same movie replays a few times, you simply stop responding to their ‘urgent’ call to action. This is called habituating. You get so used to their “boy who cried wolf” behavior that you barely react to it anymore or pay it any attention.

On the other hand, habits refer to a routine behavior like brushing your teeth. Habit formation consists of three parts: the cue, the behavior, and the reward. The cue causes a habitual behavior. The behavior is what one exhibits. And the reward, a positive feeling, encourages the “habit loop”. When a behavior is repeated in the same context for several times (it is not a constant numberJ), it becomes automatic, which is the opposite of a behavior that comes from a deliberate thought. This is our goal for medication adherence. We’d like to turn medication intake into a habit, and remove the requirement for “remembering” from the equation.

How? One way is to use a text message to remind patients to take their treatment. Sounds like a plan, but does it really help patients develop a habit out of taking their medications as directed? It depends – on the frequency of the message, the timing, the content and the channel through which the reminder is transmitted. A daily message, at the same time and with the same content might create habituation or fatigue.  Once a patient becomes habituated to seeing a message, it will no longer drive him to perform a task. Using a text reminder with different content might keep a patient’s curiosity long enough to keep them reading the message and react to it. If the message is sent just on time when the patient needs to take the medicine – there is also a bigger chance that they will proceed with the task until it becomes a habit and same goes with the channel.

Personally, I prefer not to be reminded of performing an action before it’s time, but rather after the deadline. I prefer to have reminders as a safety net that will prevent me from missing what I need to do, but at the same time, give me the opportunity to care for myself. At the end of the day, a patient’s health is their responsibility….we can only try to help. What works for you?