The relationship between patient income and physician discussion of health risk behaviors

JAMA. 1997 Nov 5;278(17):1412-7.


Context: The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that physicians assess patients' health risk behaviors, addressing those needing modification.

Objective: To examine the relationship between patient income, health risk behaviors, the prevalence of physician discussion of these behaviors, and the receptiveness of patients to their physicians' advice.

Design: Employee survey.

Participants: A random sample of 6549 Massachusetts state employees in 12 health plans.

Main outcome measures: Data were obtained using a patient-completed mail survey. Trend tests were used to discern differences in the prevalence of health risk behaviors, physician discussion of these behaviors, and patient receptiveness to discussions by patient income.

Results: Although unhealthy behaviors were common among all income groups, physician discussion of health risk behaviors fell far short of the universal risk assessment recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force. Low-income patients were more likely to be obese and smoke than high-income patients and were less likely to wear seat belts and exercise. In contrast, stress and alcohol consumption increased with income, while the proportion of heavy drinkers did not vary significantly. Physicians were more likely to discuss diet and exercise with high-income patients in need of these discussions than with low-income patients, but were more likely to discuss smoking with low-income patients who smoked than with high-income patients who smoked. Among patients with whom discussions occurred, low-income patients were much more likely to report attempting to change their behavior based on physician advice.

Conclusions: Physician counseling of patients regarding health risk behaviors should be greatly improved if the US Preventive Services Task Force recommendations are to be fulfilled. Improvement is especially needed in regard to alcohol consumption, safe sex, and seat belt use. Physicians also need to be more vigilant in properly identifying and counseling low-income patients at risk in regard to diet and exercise and high-income patients who smoke.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Income*
  • Male
  • Massachusetts
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Education as Topic*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Social Class