Responding to Young People's Health Risks in Primary Care: A Cluster Randomised Trial of Training Clinicians in Screening and Motivational Interviewing

PLoS One. 2015 Sep 30;10(9):e0137581. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0137581. eCollection 2015.


Objective: To evaluate the effectiveness of a complex intervention implementing best practice guidelines recommending clinicians screen and counsel young people across multiple psychosocial risk factors, on clinicians' detection of health risks and patients' risk taking behaviour, compared to a didactic seminar on young people's health.

Design: Pragmatic cluster randomised trial where volunteer general practices were stratified by postcode advantage or disadvantage score and billing type (private, free national health, community health centre), then randomised into either intervention or comparison arms using a computer generated random sequence. Three months post-intervention, patients were recruited from all practices post-consultation for a Computer Assisted Telephone Interview and followed up three and 12 months later. Researchers recruiting, consenting and interviewing patients and patients themselves were masked to allocation status; clinicians were not.

Setting: General practices in metropolitan and rural Victoria, Australia.

Participants: General practices with at least one interested clinician (general practitioner or nurse) and their 14-24 year old patients.

Intervention: This complex intervention was designed using evidence based practice in learning and change in clinician behaviour and general practice systems, and included best practice approaches to motivating change in adolescent risk taking behaviours. The intervention involved training clinicians (nine hours) in health risk screening, use of a screening tool and motivational interviewing; training all practice staff (receptionists and clinicians) in engaging youth; provision of feedback to clinicians of patients' risk data; and two practice visits to support new screening and referral resources. Comparison clinicians received one didactic educational seminar (three hours) on engaging youth and health risk screening.

Outcome measures: Primary outcomes were patient report of (1) clinician detection of at least one of six health risk behaviours (tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use, risks for sexually transmitted infection, STI, unplanned pregnancy, and road risks); and (2) change in one or more of the six health risk behaviours, at three months or at 12 months. Secondary outcomes were likelihood of future visits, trust in the clinician after exit interview, clinician detection of emotional distress and fear and abuse in relationships, and emotional distress at three and 12 months. Patient acceptability of the screening tool was also described for the intervention arm. Analyses were adjusted for practice location and billing type, patients' sex, age, and recruitment method, and past health risks, where appropriate. An intention to treat analysis approach was used, which included multilevel multiple imputation for missing outcome data.

Results: 42 practices were randomly allocated to intervention or comparison arms. Two intervention practices withdrew post allocation, prior to training, leaving 19 intervention (53 clinicians, 377 patients) and 21 comparison (79 clinicians, 524 patients) practices. 69% of patients in both intervention (260) and comparison (360) arms completed the 12 month follow-up. Intervention clinicians discussed more health risks per patient (59.7%) than comparison clinicians (52.7%) and thus were more likely to detect a higher proportion of young people with at least one of the six health risk behaviours (38.4% vs 26.7%, risk difference [RD] 11.6%, Confidence Interval [CI] 2.93% to 20.3%; adjusted odds ratio [OR] 1.7, CI 1.1 to 2.5). Patients reported less illicit drug use (RD -6.0, CI -11 to -1.2; OR 0.52, CI 0.28 to 0.96), and less risk for STI (RD -5.4, CI -11 to 0.2; OR 0.66, CI 0.46 to 0.96) at three months in the intervention relative to the comparison arm, and for unplanned pregnancy at 12 months (RD -4.4; CI -8.7 to -0.1; OR 0.40, CI 0.20 to 0.80). No differences were detected between arms on other health risks. There were no differences on secondary outcomes, apart from a greater detection of abuse (OR 13.8, CI 1.71 to 111). There were no reports of harmful events and intervention arm youth had high acceptance of the screening tool.

Conclusions: A complex intervention, compared to a simple educational seminar for practices, improved detection of health risk behaviours in young people. Impact on health outcomes was inconclusive. Technology enabling more efficient, systematic health-risk screening may allow providers to target counselling toward higher risk individuals. Further trials require more power to confirm health benefits.

Trial registration: ISRCTN16059206.

Publication types

  • Pragmatic Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Counseling
  • Female
  • General Practice*
  • General Practitioners
  • Health Status Indicators*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivational Interviewing*
  • Patient Outcome Assessment
  • Physicians*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Risk-Taking
  • Victoria
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • ISRCTN/ISRCTN16059206

Grant support

This study was supported by grants from the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC PDR 2005/06,; Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute (; National Health and Medical Research Council (566849, The funding bodies had no role in the study design, data collection, analysis, interpretation, or manuscript writing.