Improving multiple health risk behaviors in primary care: lessons from the Prescription for Health Common Measures, Better Outcomes (COMBO) study

J Am Board Fam Med. 2012 Sep-Oct;25(5):701-11. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2012.03.110057.


Background: Four health behaviors--smoking, risky drinking, physical inactivity, and unhealthy diets--contribute substantially to health care burden and are common among primary care patients. However, there is insufficient evidence to recommend broadly brief interventions to address all 4 of these in frontline primary care. This study took advantage of a multinetwork initiative to reflect on health behavior outcomes and the challenges of using a common set of measures to assess health behavior-change strategies for multiple health behaviors in routine primary care practice.

Methods: Standardized, brief practical health behavior and quality of life measures used across 7 practice-based research networks (PBRNs) with independent primary care interventions in 54 primary care practices between August 2005 and December 2007 were analyzed. Mixed-effects longitudinal models assessed whether intervention patients improved diet, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption, and unhealthy days over time. Separate analyses were conducted for each intervention.

Results: Of 4463 adults, 2199 had follow-up data, and all available data were used in longitudinal analyses. Adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, education, and baseline body mass index where available, diet scores improved significantly in 5 of 7 networks (P < .02). Physical activity improved significantly in 2 networks but declined in one network (P < .024). The likelihood of being a current smoker was reduced in 2 of 5 networks (P < .0001), and average alcoholic drinks per day was reduced in 2 networks (P < .02). Participants reported fewer unhealthy days at follow-up in 3 of 7 networks (P < .01). Details of implementation and the limitations in instrumentation help contextualize these modest outcomes.

Conclusions: Although some patients in these 7 PBRNs improved in several health behaviors and quality of life, the strength of evidence for field-ready methods to address multiple health risk behaviors remains elusive. The use of common measures to assess changes in 4 unhealthy behaviors was achieved practically in PBRNs testing diverse strategies to improve behaviors; however, variations in implementation, instrumentation performance, and some features of study design overwhelmed potential cross-PBRN comparisons. For common measures to be useful for comparisons across practices or PBRNs, greater standardization of study designs and careful attention to practicable implementation strategies are necessary.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / prevention & control
  • Diet / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / methods
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Risk Reduction Behavior*
  • Sedentary Behavior
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Smoking Prevention
  • United States