Communication about behavioral health risks: a study of videotaped encounters in 2 internal medicine practices

J Gen Intern Med. 2006 Jul;21(7):698-703. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00467.x.


Background: As behavioral health risks account for the major causes of preventable morbidity and mortality in the United States, national guidelines recommend that physicians routinely screen patients for risk factors, and counsel as appropriate.

Objectives: To assess the scope of health risk screening and characterize the communication content of counseling for health behavior change in 2 general internal medicine practices.

Design and participants: We studied videotapes of 125 new patient visits to General Internists affiliated with academic medical centers in Chicago, IL (70%) and Burlington, VT (30%). All videotapes were content analyzed to examine (1) the incidence and outcome of screening for diet, exercise, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex, seatbelt use, helmet use, firearms, smoke detectors, and sun exposure; (2) the content of counseling for at-risk behaviors, with a focus on 11 counseling tasks associated with health behavior change.

Results: Patient age in these 125 initial visits ranged from 22 to 85 years. Within the 91 visits that included at least 1 screening attempt, there were a total of 361 distinct screening discussions (mean=3.9, SD=2.2, range=1 to 9). Seventy-four (20.5%) of the 361 screening discussions revealed an at-risk behavior. On average, 2.4 of the 11 counseling tasks were accomplished for each of the 74 behavioral health risks (SD=2.2, range 0 to 9); only education about the problem (56.8%) and general advice about the solution (62.2%) were evident in more than half of the counseling attempts.

Conclusions: This observational study reveals that communication tasks associated with successful counseling were relatively infrequent occurrences during initial visits in 2 primary care practices.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Counseling / standards
  • Health Promotion / methods
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Risk-Taking*
  • United States
  • Videotape Recording*