Nagging Never Works

During my time working in hospital I remember seeing a patient in the clinic who came for review after a spell as an in-patient. He had come in with his first episode of chest pain caused by heart disease and he had made a good recovery. What I remember most about him, however, was how emphatically he wanted me to pass on his thanks to the junior doctor who had admitted him:

‘She saved my life, doctor,’ he said. ‘She told me I’d die if I didn’t stop smoking. You know what I did? I handed over my packet of fags and haven’t touched one since; best thing that could’ve happened to me!’

I reassured him that I would certainly pass on his thanks to the doctor, and was glad for his success; what I did not tell him, however, was that my colleague had smoked every one of his cigarettes – ‘shame to waste them,’ she had told me.

What this incident illustrates is the fundamental difference between being in possession of medical knowledge and deciding to act upon it – or in the language of the cycle of change: moving from being pre-contemplative about change to actually contemplating doing something. My medical colleague undoubtedly knew more than most about the risks of smoking, yet she persisted despite the urgent advice she gave to her patient; the presence of crushing chest pain, however, was clearly capable of bringing the same advice into such sharp focus that it motivated radical change.

I often say to my patients that their two best opportunities to stop smoking are to get pregnant or to have a heart attack – a range of options which my male patients find disturbingly limiting. Timely advice from doctors can certainly increase the chance of success, but the studies included in the Cochrane review are of interventions when patients have made an appointment for other reasons. A different question entirely is whether or not we should screen for cardiovascular disease and then provide lifestyle interventions – and the answer to this has appeared in the BMJ recently, and appears to be a resounding ‘no’.

The Inter99 study is a significant piece of work – nearly 60 000 participants with interventions over 5 years and 10 year follow-up, and came to the overwhelming conclusion that screening for risk factors with regular lifestyle counselling had no impact on the incidence of ischaemic heart disease, stroke or mortality. We might be depressed at the poor return for such well-meant efforts, but we should not be surprised: despite the Government’s obsession with ‘making every contact count’, NHS health checks and annual demands in the GP contract to advise our patients again and again about smoking, nagging patients generally does not work.

We know nagging does not work because that is what patients say – receiving health advice when you are not ready for it simply creates resistance and can damage the doctor-patient relationship as this qualitative study in smokers makes clear; it is contrary to all the principles of Motivational Interviewing and against both our training and our experience in the consulting room. The question now is, will policy-makers listen? Will they be bold enough to follow the evidence and stop telling doctors to do things that don’t work, or will they just carry on regardless? Sadly, I think I might know the answer.

This post was first published in Pulse magazine (free subscription required)

2 thoughts on “Nagging Never Works

  1. 21 January 1997 at 7:40am, aged 47. That last ciggie! You never forget. Alan Carr’s book, The Easy Way To Stop Smoking did the trick – don’t know how or why – I LOVED smoking so read tiny bits every now and again – then one day – that was it. Subliminal messages or what? (Pass the biscuits and chewing gum please…)

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  2. Although smoking is addictive it also had other attractions like offering a ‘fag’ to someone as a token of friendship, as an image of a relaxed person, enhancing a persons style – say with a pipe or cigar or just fashionable. It could help for a worker to stretch his aching back and roll a fag. It was up to the individual to look at himself and realize the psychology going on in his mind motivated by advertising but the need for an image and of belonging is strong. I remember the communist posters showing the people muscling together in some kind of productive activity to attain a goal, like ‘Dig for Victory’ in the last world war when smoking was popular. Even as kids we smoked ‘monkey rope’ (the stems of our wild clematis or ‘Old Man’s Beard’). Whilst in the RAF, during national service, cigarettes were – with coupons – a shilling for twenty – selling the coupons to the Dutch RNAF to supplement the wage of three pounds a fortnight. Having seen the public health warnings on smoking showing the tar collected in the lungs convinced myself (after seeing three times on TV) to give up the pipe. Necessary lies were told in the war time so it took a long time for a lot of people to believe that smoking was as bad as it was – also it may be because of the dithering from those bought in the shop to rolled cigarettes – to cigars – to pipe.
    They’re all poison and that is just smoking!

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