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Tame Your Advice Monster Doctor

Giving advice without considering the context or the receptivity to that advice may be akin to prescribing drugs without checking for potential drug interactions or allergies. At best it may be unhelpful and at worst it can cause harm.

In his book on ‘The Advice Trap’, Bungay Stanier asks us to consider the circumstances in which we are tempted to issue advice. There is a very helpful table on page 43 in which he outlines the type of person and the type of situation in which we are tempted. Doctor’s reading the book would clearly recognise the risk: Someone apparently seeking advice and time is short; someone who doesn’t ask for advice when there is a lot at stake; and someone who challenges you and ‘that thing’ keeps recurring.

What is the evidence that doctor’s advice to lose weight achieves any results? A startling conclusion from a recent study:

There were no significant interactions between Health Care Professional’s (HCP) advice and attempts to lose weight. Obese adult’s attempt to lose weight, and not HCP’s advice to lose weight, was a predictor for healthy eating behaviors. Interventions in medical practices should train HCPs on effective strategies for motivating obese patients to adopt healthier lifestyle

Preventive Medicine

The issue of health promotion needs to take account of the circumstances of people’s lives and the complexity of the aetiology of many such problems:

Social ecological models that describe the interactive characteristics of individuals and environments that underlie health outcomes have long been recommended to guide public health practice. The extent to which such recommendations have been applied in health promotion interventions, however, is unclear. The authors developed a coding system to identify the ecological levels that health promotion programs target and then applied this system to 157 intervention articles from the past 20 years of Health Education & Behavior. Overall, articles were more likely to describe interventions focused on individual and interpersonal characteristics, rather than institutional, community, or policy factors. Interventions that focused on certain topics (nutrition and physical activity) or occurred in particular settings (schools) more successfully adopted a social ecological approach. Health education theory, research, and training may need to be enhanced to better foster successful efforts to modify social and political environments to improve health.

Shelley D. Golden, MPH and Jo Anne L. Earp, ScD

You may enjoy my podcast with Michael Bungay Stanier

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The art of pitching in medicine

If you are a health professional a lot of what you say will be an attempt to pitch to the patient. I forgot to keep that in mind as I broke the news that Hilda had diabetes. Her husband sat bolt upright next to her looking concerned at the mention of ‘diabetes’. I casually asked:

Me: What do you like to eat?

There was silence.

Me: Do you like bread or potatoes?

Him: Yes! She likes lots of bread and potatoes!

Poor Hilda looked like Christmas was cancelled. I knew then that her devoted husband would make sure she didn’t get to enjoy any of her favorite meals and she looked like she just wanted this meeting to end.

A pitch is successful if your ideas get past the Amygdala and through to the neocortex where the information may then be classified as ‘new and interesting’ enough to warrant a second thought. In Hilda’s case the information would simply elicit a flight or fight reaction. When she got home she would argue bitterly that bread and potatoes were not the source of her trouble and that may be she’d prefer to see another doctor. Meanwhile her diabetes would remain problematic. If we don’t pitch effectively we don’t get the best outcomes. For people with coughs and colds we pitch for time, knowing that the symptoms (though horrible) will get completely better. For those like Hilda with a long term illness we pitch for them to make different choices and for those with a life limiting illness we might pitch for surgery and other invasive treatments.

I don’t remember being taught how to ‘pitch’ during my training decades ago. It is often assumed that simply giving people ‘information’ does the trick. But of course our words, when they don’t penetrate to the neocortex, are relayed and potentially reframed by family and friends, or dissected with reference to Dr. Google. That means we fall short repeatedly unless we consider what we say and how we say it in similar circumstances.

Hilda needs her bread and potatoes- I was determined that we would come to a shared understanding of her problem and that the ban would be lifted sometimes. Fortunately in primary care there is that option in most cases. It might also be worth learning the art of pitching from others who do it for a living in three minutes.

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