Open Access Research article

Medical undergraduates’ use of behaviour change talk: the example of facilitating weight management

Sarah Peters1, Louisa Bird2, Hamaira Ashraf1, Sehar Ahmed1, Philip McNamee3, Cassandra Ng3 and Jo Hart134*

Author Affiliations

1 Manchester Centre for Health Psychology, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

2 North Western Deanery, Greater Manchester, UK

3 Medical School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

4 UHSM Academy, Education and Research Centre, University Hospital of South Manchester, Southmoor Rd, Wyhenshawe Hospital, Manchester, M23 9LT, UK

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BMC Medical Education 2013, 13:7  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-13-7

Published: 24 January 2013



Obesity, an increasing problem worldwide, is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. Management principally requires lifestyle (i.e. behavioural) changes. An evidence-base exists of behaviour change techniques for weight loss; however, in routine practice doctors are often unsure about effective treatments and commonly use theoretically-unfounded communication strategies (e.g. information-giving). It is not known if communication skills teaching during undergraduate training adequately prepares future doctors to engage in effective behaviour change talk with patients. The aim of the study was to examine which behaviour change techniques medical undergraduates use to facilitate lifestyle adjustments in obese patients.


Forty-eight medical trainees in their clinical years of a UK medical school conducted two simulated consultations each. Both consultations involved an obese patient scenario where weight loss was indicated. Use of simulated patients (SPs) ensured standardisation of key variables (e.g. barriers to behaviour change). Presentation of scenario order was counterbalanced. Following each consultation, students assessed the techniques they perceived themselves to have used. SPs rated the extent to which they intended to make behavioural changes and why. Anonymised transcripts of the audiotaped consultations were coded by independent assessors, blind to student and SP ratings, using a validated behaviour change taxonomy.


Students reported using a wide range of evidence-based techniques. In contrast, codings of observed communication behaviours were limited. SPs behavioural intention varied and a range of helpful elements of student’s communication were revealed.


Current skills-based communication programmes do not adequately prepare future doctors for the growing task of facilitating weight management. Students are able to generalise some communication skills to these encounters, but are over confident and have limited ability to use evidence-based theoretically informed techniques. They recognise this as a learning need. Educators will need to tackle the challenges of integrating theoretically informed and evidence based behaviour change talk within medical training.

Behaviour change; Obesity; Undergraduate