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Center for Integrated Primary Care. University of Massachusetts Medical School. An Introduction to Guiding Patient Health Behavior Change with Motivational Interviewing. Daniel Mullin, PsyD Center for Integrated Primary Care Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.

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An Introduction to Guiding Patient Health Behavior Change with Motivational Interviewing

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Center for


Primary Care

University of


Medical School

An Introduction to Guiding Patient Health Behavior Change with Motivational Interviewing

  • Daniel Mullin, PsyD

  • Center for Integrated Primary Care

  • Department of Family Medicine and Community Health

September 25, 2013


  • Brief discussion of Health Behavior Change

  • Introduction to Motivational Interviewing (MI)

  • Review of Evidence for MI and health behavior change

  • Discussion of the Spirit of MI

  • Introduction to Guiding, Ambivalence, Resisting the Righting Reflex, and Empathy

  • Explanation of OARS

  • A Brief Video Demonstration

  • Introduction to Change Talk

  • Summary of Elicit, Provide, Elicit approach to discussing change

  • Review of Project CHAT

  • Next steps for learning MI

You should be flossing your teeth more often than you do.

Why don’t you floss more?

  • Do you need more education regarding the benefits?

  • Is it difficult to acquire floss?

  • What is really missing?

What are some reasons that people change their behavior?

A Definition of MI

  • Motivational interviewing is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language of change.

  • It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.

The Origins of MI

  • MI was discovered accidentally as part of research into what worked for counseling for problem drinking.

  • Strong evidence for MI with drug and ETOH problems (Burke, 2003)

  • Researchers found that the use of empathy accounted for a large proportion of the sustained change.

  • A guiding principle of MI was to have the patient, rather than the clinician, voice the arguments for change.

MI is often an adjunct

  • For some conditions MI alone may be insufficient to improve health outcomes

  • MI can be more effective when paired with other interventions

  • For example, MI session preceding a 12 step drug treatment program

  • Or MI to improve participation in diabetes education

Evidence for MI in Healthcare

  • Strong evidence (RCT) for use of MI to facilitate dietary changes and weight loss (Spahn, 2010;Greaves, 2008)

  • Evidence to recommend use in smoking cessation (Cochrane, 2010; Hettema, 2010; Lindqvist, 2013)

  • When paired with stage of change counseling can be effective with patients with HTN (Woollard, 1995)

  • Chronic disease management programs with clinicians trained in MI outperform traditional approaches (Linden, 2009)

Evidence for MI in Healthcare

  • Meta-analysis from Rubak, 2005 concluded that MI outperforms “advice giving” in 80% of studies

  • “We can therefore argue that motivational interviewing is not limited in any way to counseling of a small group of selected patients, but can be used in the treatment of a broader area of diseases that to some extent are influenced by behaviour.” (Rubak, 2005)

Miller, William R. (2002-04-12). Motivational Interviewing, Second Edition. Guilford Press.

Spirit of Motivational Interviewing

  • Partnership

  • Acceptance

  • Compassion

  • Evocation

MI Perspective on Expertise

  • People possess substantial personal expertise and wisdom regarding themselves and tend to develop in a positive direction if given proper conditions of support.

  • Clinicians are faced with the difficult responsibility of moving between tasks in which their expertise is essential to their patient’s welfare and other tasks in which their expertise has the potential to interfere with promoting health.

  • Expert knowledge alone is insufficient. Knowing when to share that expertise and when to patiently withhold it is critical to facilitating health behavior change.

When patients are viewed primarily from a deficit perspective (e.g., being in denial; lacking insight, knowledge, and skills), it makes little sense to spend time eliciting their own wisdom. Instead, the clinician would be inclined to confront denial, explain reality, provide information, and teach skills. Within this perspective, consultation is clinician-centered, and it revolves around the clinician providing what the patient lacks: “I have what you need.”

It can be quite a cognitive jump from this expert stance to MI, wherein the clinician instead communicates a respect for the patient’s own perspectives and autonomy. The MI clinician seeks to evoke the patient’s own motivations for change (“You have what you need”) rather than installing them. A willingness to entertain this patient-centered perspective is a starting point in learning MI.

Adapted from Miller and Rollnick

There is something in human nature that resists being coerced and told what to do.

Ironically, it is acknowledging the other’s right and freedom not to change that sometimes makes change possible.

Rollnick, Miller, and Butler (2008)


  • Is non-adherence a better term?

  • Both terms overstate the importance of the clinician’s role in guiding patient behavior

  • Non-compliance is NOT a personality trait

  • We are all non-compliant with regards to some health behaviors

Fundamental Attribution Error

  • When explaining the behavior of others, we tend to overestimate personal factors and underestimate environmental factors.

  • When explaining our own behavior, we tend to underestimate personal factors and overestimate environmental factors.

* Fundamental Attribution Error is not an MI Concept



3 Styles of Communication



  • It is normal to have contradictory feelings about making behavior change

  • MI is a method of communication for exploring and resolving ambivalence.

  • When using MI we explore the patient’s ambivalence,

Resist Righting Reflex

  • Tolerate incorrect information that is irrelevant or useful

  • Ask permission before educating or informing

  • Be strategic about when to educate, first find out what the patient already knows

  • Remember that many people already know which behaviors are healthy and which are not

Demonstrate Empathy

  • Empathy = understanding the patient’s thoughts and feelings

  • It does not necessarily mean you feel what the patient feels or think what the patient thinks

  • A clinician’s empathy is only useful if it is experienced by the patient

  • To demonstrate empathy you must verbalize your understanding of the patient’s thoughts/feelings

MI Skills

  • Open questions

  • Affirming statements

  • Reflecting statements

  • Summarizing statements

MI Skills

  • Open questions

  • Affirming statements

  • Reflecting statements

  • Summarizing statements



  • Repeating - The simplest reflection simply repeats an element of what the speaker has said.

  • Rephrasing - Here the listener stays close to what the speaker said, but substitutes synonyms or slightly rephrases what was offered.

  • Paraphrasing - This is a more major restatement, in which the listener infers the meaning in what was said and reflects this back in new words. This adds to and extends what was actually said. In artful form, this is like continuing the paragraph that the speaker has been developing saying the next sentence rather than repeating the last one.

  • Reflection of feeling - Often regarded as the deepest form of reflection, this is a paraphrase that emphasizes the emotional dimension through feeling statements, metaphor, etc.


A Video Demonstration


  • The more patients verbalize the disadvantages of change, the more committed they become to sustaining the status quo

  • The opposite is true, the more patients express their commitment to change the more likely they are to make and sustain change

Change Talk

  • Patients are more likely to change health behaviors when the clinician elicits the patient’s own reasons for changing

  • Clinicians are successful when patients talk themselves into change

  • When patients are talking about their own reasons for changing this is called Change Talk

Change Talk

  • When practicing MI the goal is to evoke and reinforce change talk

  • The goal is not to make them change

  • You are responsible for the intervention not the outcome

Reasons for change which originate with the clinician are not associated with patient health behavior change

Reasons for change which originate with the patient

are associated with patient health behavior change

  • Begin by eliciting the patient’s thoughts and feelings about the topic in question

  • Examples:

    • “I’d like to shift the conversation to talking about mammograms. Tell me a bit about your thoughts about mammograms.”

    • “I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about a few options that are available to you. Perhaps we could start by having you share your thoughts about smoking.”

    • “Before we jump into deciding whether or not you should change your drinking please take a minute to tell me what you know or have heard about how drinking relates to your blood pressure.”

After assessing the patients thoughts/feelings/knowledge you may begin to shift to offering the patient information.

However, before providing information, first assess the patient’s interest in hearing what you have to say.

Asking permission to educate about behavior change:

- promotes collaboration

- communicates respect for the patient’s expertise

- encourages patient to voice his or her perspective

- focuses the patient’s attention on what you say

Examples of asking permission:

“I have an idea here that may or may not be relevant. Do you want to hear it?”

“I think I understand your perspective on this. I wonder if it would be OK for me to tell you a few things that occur to me as I listen to you.”

If after asking the patient’s interest in hearing your advice, the patient declines, do not proceed with education.

If some patients decline to hear your advice you know you are building strong relationships with your patients. They are comfortable being honest with you.

Telling someone what to do when they don’t want to hear your thoughts will damage your relationship with them.

Telling someone what to do when they don’t want to hear your thoughts has almost no chance of changing their behavior.

After sharing your advice and thoughts follow up with the patient to confirm you were understood and elicit reactions


“Now that I have shared some of my thoughts I wonder how you they strike you.”

“Tell me a bit about how what I have shared fits with your thoughts and feelings about smoking.”

“Now that you have shared your thoughts, and I have shared mine, I wonder where we should go from here.”





Communicate listening, non-verbally:

Eye contact, head nods, hands off keyboard

Confirm understanding by repeating back, or reflecting what you have heard:

“Let me make sure I understand, you said...”

“I can tell that you have given this some thought. Your understanding is that...”

Project CHAT - design

  • 426 Adult patients with BMI > 25 were enrolled and followed for 3 months

  • Patients attend non-acute visit with their PCP

  • Neither MDs or patients knew study was focused on weight

  • PCPs were not trained in Motivational Interviewing - any use of MI spirit or techniques was incidental

Pollak, K. I., Alexander, S. C., Coffman, C. J., Tulsky, J. A., Lyna, P., Dolor, R. J., et al. (2010).

Physician Communication Techniques and Weight Loss in Adults.

American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 39(4), 321–328.

Project CHAT - general findings

  • 320 or 461 patient encounters included discussions of weight

  • When physicians discussed a patient’s weight they spent an average of 3.3 minutes discussing weight

  • There were no differences in outcomes (weight at 3 months) between those patients who discussed their weight with physicians and those that didn’t

Project CHAT - MI findings

  • Patients whose physician demonstrated MI Spirit lost more weight than those that did not (1.4kg lost vs. 0.2kg gained, p = 0.02)

  • Patients whose physician use reflective statements lost more weight than those that did not (0.5kg lost vs. 0.4kg gained, p = 0.03)

The more MI inconsistent behaviors, such as giving

unsolicited advice,

the more weight gain.

Center for


Primary Care

University of


Medical School

Learning MI

  • An online 20 hour course in Motivational Interviewing available at:

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