This past week I had my yearly exam with my obgyn. I will spare you all the details, but during our small talk, my doctor asked what I do and what I studied. I proceeded to tell her about my public health background and interest in health communication.
The conversation then turned to whether I wanted to go ahead with the standard STD screenings. She started to explain to me that she recommends everyone get screened, even if you are in a monogamous relationship, aren’t currently sexually active, and practice safe sex. She paused for a second and then said to me, “I guess you know all of this already. You are probably the one telling other people. Well at least then you can practice what you preach.”
She’s right. A lot of the health communication work I’ve done has been writing health content for adolescents and women ages 18-35. I’ve written about the importance of getting screened for STDs multiple times, in fact, I wrote about it this week for a website I’m currently helping to work on. I’m one person that my doctor does not need to convince.
She was also right about another thing. Even though there is a separation between my personal and professional life, I do want to practice what I preach. Not just with screenings, but with other health topics as well.
As a public health professional, I feel that I live a healthy life that is in line with current recommendations. I’m in no way saying that my behavior is perfect! I don’t regularly floss, I spend too much time in the sun (even with sunscreen), I don’t drink enough water, the list goes on. However when I write about general healthy habits, I don’t feel a tension between what I am recommending people do and what I currently do. I’m not implying that all people in the public health field (or any field really) should share this opinion, but it’s something that is important to me personally.
Enter my diabetes.
Being in the public health field, I’ve struggled with the fact that for most of my life with diabetes, my A1c has been higher than I want it. How can I advise other people on how to change their health behaviors when (until recently) I can’t get my own diabetes control where I want it?! I studied health behavior change, my job is to help people make positive changes in their lives and adopt healthy behaviors. Yet, I’m not able to practice what I preach, not with this. I worried about my credibility.
I’ve learned the theories. The Health Belief Model, the Theory of Planned Behavior/Reasoned Action, Social Cognitive Theory, The Transtheoretical Model, at some point I’ve applied them all to my own behavior. I know all about self-efficacy, motivation and confidence, outcome expectancies, perceived severity, susceptibility, barriers and benefits, social norms, and cues to action. But despite all of this knowledge, my A1c was too high.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Many nights tossing and turning were spent wondering if I truly am in the right field. Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
My A1c isn’t perfect, but it’s gotten better every appointment. I know the theories, but I also know that change is damn hard! Even with the best intentions, it takes time (years!), it takes effort (every single day!), and there will be setbacks. I know what it’s like to struggle towards a health goal. Maybe having an A1c that is a little higher than where I want it hurts my credibility, but honestly, I think it enhances it. When I’m at work writing, “Change is hard and takes time” I know first hand. I may not be at my ideal A1c but I’m getting closer, and that counts for something. I can bridge that gap between academia and real life, between what the health messages say and what happens when you try to incorporate that advice into a life managing a chronic condition. Most importantly, I can bring all this real life experience to my professional career.
My personal struggle does not mean that my professional advice is any less credible. To me at least, it means the opposite.