Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Consultations about changing behaviour

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 20 October 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:961
  1. Stephen Rollnick, professor of healthcare communication (,
  2. Christopher C Butler, professor of primary care medicine1,
  3. Jim McCambridge, lecturer in prevention2,
  4. Paul Kinnersley, reader1,
  5. Glyn Elwyn, professor of primary care medicine1,
  6. Ken Resnicow, professor3
  1. 1Department of General Practice, Centre for Health Sciences Research, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF14 4XN
  2. 2National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry (King's College London), London SE5 8AF
  3. 3University of Michigan, Health Behavior and Health Education School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2029, USA
  1. Correspondence to: S Rollnick
  • Accepted 2 September 2005

Persuading patients to change behaviour that is damaging their health can be difficult. Changing the style of consultation could improve the experience for doctors and patients


Health threatening behaviours are the commonest cause of premature illness and death in the developed world, affecting the sustainability of our health services and society.1 Almost every healthcare worker interacting with almost every patient has an important opportunity to change health behaviour. Examples include a general practitioner talking to a patient about smoking or exercise, a health visitor engaging a mother about her child's diet, an accident and emergency house officer talking to an injured patient about alcohol, a renal nurse discussing fluid intake, and a dental hygienist discussing flossing. These consultations can be difficult to navigate, however, and practitioners often make a cursory attempt to satisfy external guidelines or end up avoiding the subject altogether. Here, we consider how the flexible use of a guiding style could make health promotion more satisfying and effective.

Skilfulness makes a difference

The challenges of changing health behaviour have parallels in everyday life. For example, the more we raise the stakes in telling a child to do something, the more likely conflict will follow. “Please get into the bath, now!” is often followed by, “But I am not dirty!” In the more polite confines of the consulting room, weariness is a common reaction.Doctors feel pressure to do more to prevent the effects of health compromising behaviourson their patients. Yet, doctors say they are not social engineers, cannot dictate the lives of their patients, and were trained primarily for diagnosing and treating medical conditions not monitoring and modifying their patients'behaviour. When they raise health behaviour, clinicians usually default to a directing style of interacting with their patients.

It is not difficult to distinguish discussions that go well from those that go …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription