Physicians should focus on changing patients' bad health habits

It comes as no surprise to physicians that patients who smoke, drink too much, don't get enough sleep, don't exercise or are obese are going to have health problems.

However, a new study released earlier this month quantified the impact of those bad behaviors and makes it clearer than ever that physicians need to address the health risks with their patients, Glen Stream, M.D., a family physician in La Quinta, California, and former president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, writes in a blog post on Medical Economics.

With 72 percent of American adults with at least one of those bad behaviors, "to reverse the trend, we need to build a system with the single-minded focus on improving patient health and increasing access to primary care," Stream says. More primary care physicians are needed to increase access to care, he says. Right now, the ongoing demand for primary care physicians is outstripping the current supply.

Family doctors see patients every day with these bad health habits, Stream says, and are in the best position to help patients reduce unhealthy behaviors and motivate them to take better care of themselves. The study, conducted by the United Health Foundation and released in partnership with Family Medicine for America's Health, found more than 25 million adults in the U.S. have at least three behaviors that inevitably lead to poor health. Adults who report having three or more of these five unhealthy behaviors are at more than six times as great a risk of fair or poor health than those reporting none of the factors. For those patients with all five behaviors, the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions that can lead to illness and death is 8.5 times higher.

"While it may be common sense that more unhealthy behaviors add up to greater odds of poor health, this study is the first to quantify the impact. For me, it drives home just how important behavior is to health and should help those of us in medical practice communicate more effectively with our patients about the risks to their health," says Stream, who is president and board chair of Family Medicine for America's Health.

And when it comes to getting patients to actually change behaviors, doctors can identify the patient's "stage of change" and adapt interventions accordingly.

To learn more:
- read the article
- find the study