Background: United Kingdom public health policy has recently re-emphasised the role of primary health care professionals in tackling increasing levels of physical inactivity within the general population. However, little is known about the impact that this has had in practice. This study explores Scottish primary care staff's knowledge, attitudes and experiences associated with advising patients about physical activity during routine consultations.
Methods: A cross-sectional questionnaire survey of general practitioners (or family physicians), practice nurses and health visitors based in four health regions was conducted during 2004. The main outcome measures included: (i) health professionals' knowledge of the current physical activity recommendations; (ii) practice related to routine physical activity advising; and (iii) associated attitudes.
Results: Questionnaires were returned by 757 primary care staff (response rate 54%). Confidence and enthusiasm for giving advice was generally high, but knowledge of current physical activity recommendations was low. In general, respondents indicated that they routinely discuss and advise patients about physical activity regardless of the presenting condition. Health visitors and practice nurses were more likely than general practitioners to offer routine advice. Lack of time and resources were more likely to be reported as barriers to routine advising by general practitioners than other professional groups. However, health visitors and practice nurses were also more likely than general practitioners to believe that patients would follow their physical activity advice giving.
Conclusion: If primary health care staff are to be fully motivated and effective in encouraging and supporting the general population to become more physically active, policymakers and health professionals need to engage in efforts to: (1) improve knowledge of current physical activity recommendations and population trends amongst frontline primary care staff; and (2) consider the development of tools to support individual assessment and advice giving to suit individual circumstances. Despite the fact that this study found that system barriers to routine advising were less of a problem than other previous research has indicated, this issue still remains a challenge.