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Nagging patients doesn’t work

In a former life I spent a couple of years working as the most pitiful creature on the hospital ward: a medical registrar.

During that time I remember seeing a patient in the clinic who came for review after a spell as an in-patient. He had come in with his first episode of unstable angina but had made a good recovery.

What I remember most about him, however, was how emphatically he wanted me to pass on his thanks to the senior house officer (SHO) who had admitted him. 

‘She saved my life, doctor,’ he said. ‘She told me I’d die if I didn’t stop smoking. You know what I did? I handed over my packet of fags and haven’t touched one since; best thing that could’ve happened to me!’

I reassured him that I would certainly pass on his thanks to the doctor, and was glad for his success.

What I didn’t tell him, however, was that the SHO had smoked every one of his cigarettes. ‘Shame to waste them,’ she had said between puffs. 

What this incident illustrates is the fundamental difference between being in possession of medical knowledge and deciding to act upon it. To describe it in terms of the ‘cycle of change’: moving from being pre-contemplative to actually contemplating doing something.

My medical colleague undoubtedly knew more than most about the risks of smoking, yet she persisted despite the urgent advice she gave to her patient; the presence of crushing chest pain, however, was clearly capable of bringing the same advice into such sharp focus that it motivated radical change.

I often say to my patients that their two best opportunities to stop smoking are to get pregnant or to have a heart attack – a range of options which my male patients find disturbingly limiting. Timely advice from doctors can certainly increase the chance of success, but the studies included in the Cochrane review are of interventions when patients have made an appointment for other reasons.

To ask another question entirely, should we screen for cardiovascular disease, and then provide lifestyle interventions? The answer, according to the Inter99 study, appears to be a resounding ‘no’. Its authors came to the overwhelming conclusion that screening for risk factors with regular lifestyle counselling had no impact on the incidence of ischaemic heart disease, stroke or mortality. The study is a significant piece of work, covering nearly 60 000 participants with interventions over five years (and 10-year follow-up). 

We might be depressed at the poor return for such efforts, but we should not be surprised. Despite the Government’s obsession with ‘making every contact count’, the health checks scheme and QOF incentives for offering smoking cessation advice, nagging patients generally does not work.

We know nagging does not work because that is what patients say – receiving health advice when you are not ready for it simply creates resistance, and can even damage the doctor-patient relationship (as this qualitative study in smokers makes clear). It is contrary to all the principles of Motivational Interviewing and, most importantly, it’s against our GP training and experience in the consulting room.

The question now is, will policy-makers listen? Will they be bold enough to follow the evidence and stop telling doctors to do things that don’t work, or will they just carry on regardless?

Sadly, I think I might already know the answer. 

Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68.